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Nicolais: How can we make sense out of Karen Garner’s ordeal at the hands of Loveland police?

The brutal arrest of a Loveland resident suffering from dementia sheds light on continuing misuse of force among police ranks

For a few weeks, I have been haunted by arrest of Karen Garner. 

Garner is the 73-year-old woman with dementia who had her arm fractured, shoulder dislocated and wrist sprained by Loveland Police officers who wrestled her to the ground for allegedly shoplifting soda and laundry detergent last year. I still cannot make it through the graphic body camera footage without becoming nauseous.

The incident is just one reason I highlighted misuse of force by law enforcement as a separate but overlapping systematic problem with racial disparity when George Floyd’s murderer was convicted. I wrote that officers’ “expectant aggression too often finds an outlet in minority communities.” The simple reason is that minority communities are more vulnerable.

Mario Nicolais

And so are people living with dementia. That is why Garner incurred such brutality.

There are 23 seconds between the time Officer Austin Hopp initially exited his patrol car, called out to Garner walking along the roadway and when he wrenched her arm behind her back and forced her to the ground. The smiling but obviously confused Garner had no idea why she had been stopped, much less what horror was about to befall her.

Three officers resigned after the arrest video — and subsequent footage of them mocking Garner’s injuries — became public. The City of Loveland is facing a federal lawsuit. There have been consequences.

Even knowing that, my heart still aches for Garner. 

The hallmark of dementia is disorientation, even in everyday circumstances. For Garner, the violent episode must have been horrific. 

I spent three years working for a company that provided care for people with dementia. My most vivid memory came from a Virtual Dementia Tour hosted by our staff. It is meant to imitate the disorienting effect of dementia.

First, we put spiked inserts into our shoes pointing up. Then we donned thick, woolen gloves that sapped the dexterity from our fingers. Next were dark, clouded glasses and earphones that constantly hissed white noise intermittently broken by sharp, loud bangs or sirens.

Then our guides brought us into a darkened room and read aloud a series of simple orders for us to accomplish in about 10 minutes.

Under normal circumstances, it would have taken about two minutes to accomplish all the assigned tasks. During my 10 minutes I barely completed one. In fact, I had not even understood most of what I had been told to do.

That is precisely the situation I keep imagining Garner must have found herself in at the hands of Loveland’s police officers. Even if Hopp had been patient and calm, she likely would have struggled to understand his questions or commands. 

And Garner could not simply take off the glasses and earphones. Instead, through no fault of her own, she endured pain and agony on top of her confusion.

Compounding matters, Garner suffers from aphasia, a condition that makes it difficult to communicate. I once had the same malady following a bout of meningitis and encephalitis in my early twenties. Maybe that is whey when I saw her smile and shrug in response to Hopp, I knew it was all she could do. 

She could not say, “I did not do anything.” She could not say, “Why are you arresting me?” She could not say, “You’re hurting me.” 

Not that it appeared Hopp or his partner, Daria Jalali, would have listened. They even ordered a bystander challenging their tactics to leave. The officers then left Garner in a cell, unattended and untreated for six hours.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

Garner’s ordeal seems like something on the page of a Stephen King novel.

Garner was trapped in her own mind and the Loveland Police holding cell. I cannot imagine the trauma imposed on her. And all over groceries that a $20 bill would have covered. 

It will be a while before I can get the image of Garner suffering out of my mind. And maybe that is just as well. If she could not make sense out of what happened to her, maybe we cannot, either.


Mario Nicolais is an attorney and columnist who writes on law enforcement, the legal system, health care and public policy. Follow him on Twitter: @MarioNicolaiEsq



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