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Push For Police Training Follows Violent Arrest Of Elderly Loveland Woman

Loveland Police Department
Two Loveland police officers arrested 73-year old Karen Garner after she left a Walmart store last summer without paying for some items.

Police departments across the country are under pressure to change, following protests last summer and multiple high-profile police shootings. In Loveland, after body camera footage showing the violent arrest of a woman with dementia came out last month, some believe the answer is more police training.

“I’ve been talking to many elderly people in my neighborhood, especially women, that are now — seriously and I’m not joking — they are now seriously afraid of the police department,” Loveland resident June Dreith said to Chief Robert Ticer during a police citizen advisory commission meeting on Monday.

Leigh Paterson
June Dreith (left) raises her hand during a police accountability meeting in Loveland on Monday.

Dreith is referring to body-camera footage showing the arrest of Karen Garner, a small 73-year old woman, who was arrested after trying to leave a Walmart store in Loveland last summer without paying for $14 worth of items.

A police officer wrestled her to the ground, put her in handcuffs and forced her into his vehicle.

On April 14, Garner filed a federal lawsuit alleging, among other claims, excessive use of force, failure to provide medical care and a violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA).

“Ms. Garner was suffering from cortical dementia, disorientation and sensory aphasia at the time of this incident. She was, and is, mentally disabled,” wrote her lawyers in the complaint, noting that the ADA requires accommodations during arrest.

Dementia training for first responders

The incident has led to an increased focus on getting officers trained on how to interact with people who have dementia.

“There are very subtle cues that an officer should be trained to pick up on to know that the normal intervention is not going to work with this person because they have dementia and they need to take a different approach,” said Kelly Osthoff, the senior director of programs for the Colorado chapter of the Alzheimer's Association. “Such as exaggerated confusion, the inability to answer very basic questions.”

Osthoff has run dementia training for police departments across the state, including in Greeley and Fort Morgan. She says the organization has been getting a lot of calls for this type of training since the Garner video came out.

Loveland Police Department requires various training sessions on mental illness and autism. Around 80% of the department’s sworn officers are certified in Crisis Intervention Training. For the past two years, officers have exceeded the yearly amount of in-service training required by the state. The department takes part in a co-responder program, which pairs law enforcement with clinicians from SummitStone, but this team was not called during Karen Garner's arrest.

Leigh Paterson
Chief Ticer listens to public comment at a police accountability meeting in Loveland on Monday night.

“Our training currently, in the past and present is always to make sure our officers are up to speed on as much training as they can on how to interact with people in crisis who may have mental health issues,” Ticer said. “We’re always looking to find gaps in our training to make sure our people are trained at the highest level they can.”

But until recently, Loveland PD did not require training on dementia specifically. When the Alzheimer’s Association called last month to offer it, they agreed.

‘This is unacceptable’

This issue extends far beyond one police department, though. Around 76,000 Coloradans have Alzheimer's disease, the most common cause of dementia. That number is expected to increase by 20% over the next four years, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

“So these interactions happen. They're frequent. They're going to become more and more frequent and with the proper knowledge, compassion and training, hopefully they can go better,” Osthoff said.

Before the Karen Garner video came out, a bipartisan group of Colorado lawmakers introduced a bill aimed at improving how first responders interact with disabled people, including those with dementia.

The legislation would create a commission to recommend new training standards to the state body that oversees police training, Colorado Peace Officer Standards And Training (POST). Currently, the basic academy curriculum requires a minimum of two hours on how to interact with people who have special needs.

Disabled people are more likely to be victims of crimes, according to data from the US Department of Justice. Advocates say that they are also more likely to be killed by police.

“This is unacceptable,” Senator Chris Kolker, a Democrat, said during a recent hearing on the bill. “Officers are simply not trained properly in interacting with those who have disabilities and thus may not be able to effectively communicate to individuals in the IDD (intellectual or developmental disability) community. To their credit, this is not their fault.”

During Monday’s police accountability meeting, Loveland resident Dawn Kirk told the police chief that she is not sure any amount of new training is going to help change the behavior of officers.

“The question is how do you make sure that people act according to the training that we pay for?” she asked.

“It starts with training, accountability, supervision, doing the right thing,” Chief Ticer responded.

The department has yet to set a deadline for when officers need to complete the new dementia training. A joint investigation into the Karen Garner arrest, run by the district attorney for Larimer County and Fort Collins Police, is ongoing.

As KUNC's Senior Editor and Reporter, my job is to find out what’s important to northern Colorado residents and why. I seek to create a deeper sense of urgency and understanding around these issues through in-depth, character driven daily reporting and series work.
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