The arrest of a 73-year-old woman with dementia in Loveland, Colorado, shined the spotlight back on the issue of providing more training for officers interacting with people with mental and physical disabilities.
According to the Colorado Sun, lawmakers were already working on House Bill 1122, which aims to increase disability-oriented training in law enforcement, when the arrest of Karen Garner led to the expansion of the bill to focus on disabilities such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
The Colorado bill was initially a response to previous bad outcomes between disabled individuals and law enforcement, such as the 2003 fatal shooting of a developmentally delayed 15-year-old, but was broadened in light of Garner’s arrest.
Democratic Rep. Meg Froelich said the bill seeks to provide better training for law enforcement and answer several questions.
“Is the person not complying out of defiance? Or can they not hear what you’re saying? Are they overwhelmed? The hope is that through better understanding, through better training there’s a checklist that happens before you’re throwing someone to the ground or handcuffing them,” she said.
The body camera arrest footage of Karen Garner helped put the focus back on dementia, a common disability of the elderly.
“We were thinking about dementia before Loveland,” said Sen. Chris Kolker. “Then Loveland hit and obviously made everyone more aware.”
Garner was arrested for shoplifting $14 worth of merchandise. When she did not comply during her arrest, the officer grabbed her arm and threw her to the ground, resulting in a broken arm and dislocated shoulder. She did not receive medical care for six hours according to a federal lawsuit filed by Garner.
The three Loveland Police Department officers involved in the arrest resigned following the event.
Coral Cosway, the senior director of public policy and advocacy for the Alzheimer’s Association of Colorado said of the arrest: “Garner’s story is an extreme outcome. But we hear plenty of stories of difficult interactions with first responders. That’s not uncommon in our community.”
Cosway added that often officers do not know how to recognize dementia, a problem that can be remedied by training.
Ali Thompson, a law enforcement officer who serves on the Colorado Developmental Disabilities Council agreed.
“We are not equipping our first responders with the tools they need. People with disabilities are being arrested or having force used against them because of officers’ lack of understanding of disability,” Thompson said. “Examples are numerous and include people who are deaf not hearing police commands and being tased, people with cerebral palsy or in a diabetic emergency not passing roadside maneuvers and being arrested for DUI.”
The bipartisan bill would form a 12-person commission of knowledgeable people to recommend a disability-interaction curriculum to the Colorado Peace Standards and Training Board.
The bill is also supported by LE unions the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police and the Colorado Fraternal Order of Police.
Officer Mike Foley with the Fraternal Order of Police wrote in a statement about the benefits of providing additional training.
“Mandating training to improve interactions with people with disabilities, while simultaneously allocating resources, will benefit both officers and the citizens they serve,” Foley said. “Standardized mental health training would mitigate critical incidents and allow every citizen with a disability to be heard and respected when encountering police officers. This legislation is an important step in giving all first responders the critical training they need to successfully provide exemplary service that their citizens deserve.”