Nearly a year after police officers in Loveland, Colo., injured an elderly woman with dementia and then laughed at footage of her arrest, two of those officers are facing criminal charges while the rest of the department undergoes additional training. The fallout has drawn national attention to a problem that experts say is widespread across law enforcement agencies: Police often lack the skills to interact with people with mental and physical disabilities.

Last June, a Walmart employee called police after Karen Garner, 73 at the time, tried to leave without paying for $14 worth of items. Soon after, Officer Austin Hopp’s body camera video showed, he pulled over beside her as she walked down a road and wrestled her to the ground in handcuffs after she failed to respond to his questions. Afterward, Garner’s lawyers say, she sat in jail for several hours with a dislocated and fractured shoulder as Hopp and two other officers laughed while watching the body camera video.

According to a federal complaint, Garner has dementia and also suffers from sensory aphasia, which impairs her ability to understand. Her violent arrest has other elderly people worried about potential encounters with police, Loveland resident June Dreith told Police Chief Robert Ticer during a public meeting last month.

“They are now seriously afraid of the police department,” Dreith said.

Hopp resigned and faces felony charges of assault and attempting to influence a public servant — a charge related to allegations of omissions when reporting the arrest — as well as official misconduct, a misdemeanor. Another officer, Daria Jalali, also resigned and is charged with three misdemeanors: failure to report excessive force, failure to intervene and official misconduct. Neither has entered a plea in court. A third officer, who watched the video with them, resigned but has not been charged.

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An independent assessment of the Loveland Police Department by a third-party consultant is underway. The city and involved officers face a federal lawsuit, filed by Garner in April, alleging excessive use of force and violations of the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Ticer declined to be interviewed, but through his public information officer he characterized the Garner incident as a problem with an individual officer, not with the department’s operations.

“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 during the public meeting in May at department headquarters.

Loveland’s police department, like many others, requires officers to be trained to respond to people with mental illness and developmental disabilities. But no national standards exist. That means the amount of training law enforcement officers receive on interacting with disabled people varies widely.

“On the whole, we’re doing terrible,” said Jim Burch, president of the National Police Foundation, a nonprofit organization focused on police research and training. “We have to do much, much better at being able to recognize these types of issues and being more sensitive to them.”

While comprehensive data on the frequency of negative interactions between police and people with mental disabilities is lacking, interactions with the criminal justice system are common. The Bureau of Justice Statistics has estimated about 3 in 10 state and federal prisoners and 4 in 10 local jail inmates have at least one disability.

“There’s a very large number of people that police are coming into contact with that have an intellectual disability or mental health challenge,” Burch said. “Do we have a systemic problem? We think that we do.”

Colorado requires a minimum of two hours of training on interacting with people with disabilities, although legislation aims to improve on that by creating a commission to recommend new statewide standards.

Loveland Police Chief Robert Ticer characterized Karen Garner’s rough arrest as an issue with an individual officer, not with the department’s operations. The city’s police are now undergoing Alzheimer's awareness training. Leigh Paterson / KHN
Loveland Police Chief Robert Ticer characterized Karen Garner’s rough arrest as an issue with an individual officer, not with the department’s operations. The city’s police are now undergoing Alzheimer's awareness training. Leigh Paterson / KHN

Loveland’s officers are certified in crisis intervention training. The department also has a co-responder program, which pairs law enforcement officers with mental health clinicians, although this team was not called during Garner’s arrest. Since that incident, questions remain about the department’s readiness to interact with disabled citizens.

“We could always use more and more training. We could train every single week for eight hours a day, but we could do that all the time and never go out on calls,” said Sgt. Brandon Johnson, who oversees training. “It’s just balancing our available workforce and our time and our service to the community and our staffing levels.”

Loveland police officers are now undergoing Alzheimer’s awareness training, and five staff members will be trained as de-escalation instructors, department officials said.

Training on how to interact with disabled people varies, but the basics include identifying such individuals early in an encounter instead of relying on use of force.

“It’s scary, because you don’t know why they’re not following your commands,” said Ali Thompson, a former deputy with the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office who now serves on the Colorado Developmental Disabilities Council. “So, your adrenaline starts pumping and you think … ‘They’re not listening to my commands because they have a warrant or because they have a gun on them,’ or you come up with all of these scenarios to explain it.”

Garner’s rough arrest is “not an isolated incident by any means,” Thompson said. She said she would not have thought to attribute noncompliance to conditions like autism or dementia when she was a young patrol officer.

“We need to start bringing those possibilities into those ‘what if’ scenarios,” Thompson said.

In addition to teaching how to identify disabled people, organizations such as the International Association of Chiefs of Police help prepare officers for such situations by showing them how to speak in short phrases, refrain from touching, and turn off sirens and flashing lights. Research on which disability-specific efforts actually reduce bad outcomes is scant, but experts point to other types of curricula as relevant, too, including crisis intervention training, instruction on de-escalating tensions and sessions on mental illness.

“Just training in and of itself is not going to create that long-term change that we are hoping for,” said Lee Ann Davis, director of criminal justice initiatives at The ARC, a national disability advocacy organization.

That means going beyond officer training to address the many areas in which people with disabilities are not being identified and supported, she said. One of The ARC’s programs, Pathways to Justice, brings in not only law enforcement officials but also attorneys and victim service providers for instruction.

“So our goal is to help communities understand that this is a communitywide issue, that there’s not one specific spoke within the criminal justice system or in our communities that can address it adequately alone,” Davis said.

Johnson, the Loveland sergeant in charge of training, said officers have been engaged for years in community outreach such as supporting the Special Olympics.

Despite the actions of the three officers who resigned, Johnson believes the department is adequately prepared to interact with disabled citizens. At the same time, he acknowledges limitations.

“We have to be the first responder. We have to have a good foundational understanding of all of it,” he said. “But we’re also not … we’re also not experts.”

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operating programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.