Officers Respond to Confused 73-Year-Old Woman/Cop Encounter

September 7, 2021

Our discussion of an encounter between officers and a 73-year-old woman who shoplifted several items from a Walmart that were retrieved by store personnel before she left the store drew heavy feedback. As the woman was walking home an officer tried to unsuccessfully stop her. A very short time after he initially made contact, the officer went hands-on with the woman, who repeatedly tried to pull away from him while repeating her announcement that she was “going home.” Ultimately, the woman was restrained after the officer dislocated her shoulder during his attempt to restrain her.

Here’s a cross section of the comments we received:

Sgt. Paul Friedman with the NYPD wrote:

Officers need a tremendous amount of scenario training in order to understand what’s an arrest and what is an aided.  Unfortunately, when most training is classroom-oriented officers get fixed on what they expect not what is actually happening. When I speak to new officers I tell them to listen to what is being said to them by complainants, perps, passersby and the subjects we deal with.  

In this case I feel the officers were wrong. Officers frequently interact with people with mental issues and must learn to recognize those issues and deal with them. Most of what we do does not need an arrest and is not actually law enforcement.  Social work, old age, mental issues, medical issues, car accidents, and sometimes just to listen. Officers now need far more training since the responsibilities have grown over the years. 

Another sergeant wrote:

When this story first hit the media with the federal lawsuit filed against the officer and his agency, I and several of my deputies watched the body worn camera video and station house video of this incident. We were appalled at the behavior of the officer. The deputies were quick to question what the purpose was in contacting the woman, since Walmart didn’t want anything done. Even if they did, shoplifting is usually a petty offense resulting in a ticket being issued.

Their thoughts were more to your point of the guardian role in contacting the woman to figure out what was going on with her. They noticed that she had flowers in her hand along with her cell phone. Not really something you expect to see from someone who was just contacted by store employees for shoplifting. She then turns away and continues walking. 

What was the rush to lay hands on her? She isn’t posing a threat to the officer or other citizens, and the officer doesn’t have enough information to establish that she committed a crime. I believe that if the officer had taken the time to walk alongside and continue trying to have a conversation with the woman, it would have been obvious to him that she was not comprehending why she was being contacted by police. This is evident by her continuing to repeat that she is going home while the officer is trying to take her into custody.

The injury occurred when the officer forced her back down onto the patrol car by lifting her elbow up towards her shoulder while she was handcuffed. Of all the arrest control tactics I have been taught in my career, which have included violent techniques to deal with violent individuals, I have never been taught to force someone’s arm in a direction it is not designed to go, unless I am involved in a fight for my life with the person. That clearly was not what was going on here.

A lesson for all law enforcement officers is seen in the rest of the video. Number one, when you know a suspect has been injured you need to ensure they receive medical treatment for their injury. There is no reason to delay that treatment for hours. Number two, high fiving and laughing about how you caused injury to someone makes you look like a callous brute who wants to hurt people.

Most law enforcement officers do the right thing every day when they come to work and want to help their community. As a result of this particular incident, some of us had to do damage control with our communities, assuring them that this incident is not something that is acceptable within our community or agency. Even in the town of 11,000 that I serve in, where we enjoy a lot of community support, the mayor withdrew a Police Week resolution supporting us until I pressed him on the issue and the political winds died down.

All of us need to be alert and aware of potential dangers around us, but we also need to remember that most of the people around us are not dangerous criminals, but people just like us who want to live their lives in peace and expect us to be there to help them when they need us.

Deputy Ryan Mounsey with the Wells Co. (IN) Sheriff’s Department responded:

With all due respect, I have to disagree with your assessment of this situation.  Now, this is not hate mail but I just feel I need to speak up on this. 

Starting with the title: “A confused woman, a dislocated shoulder, and an over-zealous cop.”  This is what the press does to law enforcement all the time.  Titles such as “White Officer Shoots Black Man” or “Officer Shoots Unarmed Man.”

Then you read the story/watch the video and see that the officers did the right thing, but it was just a messy situation with quickly evolving actions that the officer had to respond to in some lose/lose situation.  The narrative starts out, “a 73-year-old woman with dementia and sensory aphasia”.  The narrative does NOT say that the officer was told these words before he interacted with the subject.  I would agree with this whole article if the officer had been told that or if the officer knew the woman personally and knew of her mental capacities.

I have been a Deputy Sheriff for 19+ years.  When I (or other law enforcement) am dispatched to a call, I am basing my response on the facts given, not on what everybody will find out tomorrow.  This is how it works.  We have to assume what we are told is the minimum of what we are dealing with.  If we get a call that someone robbed a bank, we show up with guns drawn and on high alert.  We don’t care what the description of the suspect is as far as how we handle the suspect because we know the stakes are high. 

Sometimes I find myself questioning why I responded/reacted to something like I did and then I review everything and realize my subconscious picked up on things as well and with the “totality of circumstances” I made the best decision based on what I knew.  He DIDN’T know she was 73.  He DIDN’T know she had dementia.  He DIDN’T know she had sensory aphasia.  Let’s leave out what he DIDN’T know.  He was dispatched to Walmart for a woman who stole some items, offered to pay for them after getting caught, but then left, but NOT before pulling down the mask (battery) of one of the employees.  Ya, sounds like there could have been a struggle or who knows what else.  In the article it says there was no indication that Walmart wanted the woman arrested.  Well, I find it interesting that they called 911 then.  Why did they call at all then?  There are assumed things.  Someone calls 911, and we ALL believe that SOMEONE wants not only for us to respond quickly, but for us also to take action, to make things right. 

The woman refuses to stop when confronted by the officer and ordered to stop.  This is resisting.  Of course the officer physically tried to detain the subject quickly.  She started to walk away.  They were along a busy road where she could have run into traffic, pushed the officer into traffic, AND the further she AND the officer walked away from his vehicle, the further his resources and cover/concealment were at. 

After the officer goes hands on, you can hear him breathing hard.  Ya, she wasn’t a big person but just a reminder of how quickly we can tire exerting ourselves even on subjects of smaller size.  You also hear the officer guess that she was in her 60’s, not 73.  People on drugs usually look older after much use.  How did the officer know the woman wasn’t high on drugs….which could have placed the officer in more danger due to increased strength and aggressiveness (which she already displayed)?

Would I have handled everything exactly how this officer did?  Don’t know, I wasn’t there.  The only instance where I felt he pushed a line some was when he torqued her arm up for pain compliance…and by saying this I’m being a little nitpicky but just being real.  I would have avoided that in this specific instance.  That looked risky for dislocating her arm.  But again, he was trying to control her and all things considered, he wasn’t hateful or cussing her out as he dealt with her.  The sergeant asked what happened and when he was briefed, he said they were good on the arrest and “if they decide not to prosecute, I don’t care”.  I know why he said that. He said that because he was saying the arrest was good, regardless of how the prosecutor proceeds.  Right on.  We do our job, the prosecutor does his, the courts do theirs.  

I just felt like you threw the officer under the bus on this one.  I usually agree on most of your stuff. 

Deputy Brian Forde in Denver wrote:

I am a LEO in Denver, so this arrest/assault on the elderly woman with dementia is local news. I have to say, my first thought when I heard about this incident was, “What a dumb f*#k!” I can not find a single personal or professional justification for what happened. I think the worst thing about this for me was having to look my mother in the eye, who is almost the same age as the victim, and try to answer her questions about how a fellow officer (thankfully no more) could do such a thing.

As it has been announced in the past few days that the legal process is moving forward on this officer, and likely one other female former officer involved, there are still heads shaking in disbelief. As much as those of us who wear a badge and serve honorably every day want to scream from the rooftops, “This is not how 99% of us do things!” the media and fringe groups (Antifa/BLM) have made this a headline and officers voices cannot be heard anymore.

I am heartbroken at the sad state of things currently in this country. Not sure if it will ever get better.

From Gene Harris, Director of Security for Charis Bible College:

My overwhelming reaction is that this footage was very hard to watch to the end. She was terribly mistreated. I wanted to turn it off!  I didn’t find anything in her actions to warrant that treatment.

The initial officer missed a golden opportunity to make the PD look like heroes who helped get a confused elderly woman home safely. The secondary officer didn’t help, although it seemed a few times she was uncomfortable with what was happening.

I wasn’t there, but the video tells the story.

I am saddened for many reasons for all involved.

I oversee a security team at a ministry now. I worked in LE before.  I am thankful my team has not had to face any real threats and pray we never do.  I am constantly telling my team we represent the ministry and its founders. We might be the very first face a visitor sees and we must make the most of that opportunity and do it right, whatever “right” might mean at the moment.

Thank you for bringing hard issues to the table to learn from.

Jim Lopez, who retired as a sergeant from the Univ. of CO and subsequently served in Louisville, CO wrote:

I’ll make this short, as I am now retired and have lots to do.  I agree with everything you said in your article.  I used to tell my guys/gals to picture the person most important to them interacting with the police.  How would they want them to be treated?  Some would retort, “What if they are violent?”  I’d tell them everyone is important to someone.  What if your mom is shooting up the Walmart? Should officers treat her any differently just because she is your mom?

Now, if the fictional mom in this example is acting as confused as this lady was and she is your mom, would you want the officer to wrestle her to the ground or get her some help?  She wanted to go home.  Offer her a ride and talk to the people there.  If she refuses, follow her.  I bet I can find out who lives at the address she goes to.  She didn’t appear to be a danger to herself or others, so even calling medical probably wouldn’t have worked because she just wanted to go home.

Lt. Larry Smith (ret.) with San Diego Police shared:

I reviewed your video about the confused elderly woman and came up with some interesting conclusions. As we know there are many IF’s in this video and maybe all the facts are not known.

I was not sure what the radio broadcast to the officer was and whether they told him that there was a theft and the suspect had escaped. If that was the case, maybe things would be different. However, we found out that she shoplifted some items then left the store without them. The store personnel confiscated the items and the only thing they actually had on her was that she pulled down an employees’ mask.

What I see is the officer stopped her down the road and she did not have time to explain herself.

It appeared to me that the officer did not make any attempt to communicate with a woman and decipher her state of mind or what it occurred back at Walmart.

I think the officer should’ve done more questioning to determine the state of mind of the subject and make more inquiries about what happened at Walmart.

The force used by the officer would have been justified if he had a good arrest and a person resisted aggressively or showed signs maybe that she had a weapon. She was petite and much smaller than the officer. They should’ve been able to reason with her.

Most misdemeanor crimes, like shoplifting, are only citable offenses in many cities. There must be a complaining victim. To use this type of force, in my opinion, would not be justified unless there were extenuating circumstances warranting it, like the subject’s violently resisting.

I have always said that you should be a good listener and know all the facts before you make a decision. I don’t think all these factors were a present in this incident.

1. Listen to the police radio broadcast.

2. Determined the offense and the facts surrounding the incident.

3. Make the stop, determine the state of mind of the individual and listen to their side of the story.

4. If an arrest is warranted use the appropriate force to overcome resistance.

5. Make sure you have adequate back-up so the arrest is swift and completed without too much effort.

6. If there is physical contact, it is important to check for injuries and give adequate medical treatment.

Retired Supervisory Special Agent Edward Wezain formerly with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration wrote:

Without even watching the video but reading your article, it seems the Walmart employees are better trained to deal with people than are the local police.  You have to be able to talk with people and judge their behavior. “I’m going home” repeated over and over again should be a clue. It seems the first officer’s primary perspective is to deal with people in an authoritarian manner. Finally, so much for female police officers being more compassionate. What is the leadership like in this department?  God forbid these officers had to work in an inner city neighborhood in a large city.

From Chief Howard Burton with Penn Hills (PA) Police Department:

I attended one of your Seminars a few years back when you were in the Pittsburgh area. My first Street Survival Seminar was in 1978 or 1979 in Doylestown and was presented by Chuck Remsberg and Dennis Anderson. I will be retiring this December with close to 53 years of service in Penn Hills. I have been the Chief since 1999 but started as a patrolman in 1969.

I whole heartedly agree with your analysis and comments regarding this video.

I have taught the state mandated training to active police officers for the past 30 years. During the Use of Force training and updates I remind officers that police work is a violent profession at times and doesn’t look good for us when captured on cell phone video. But if your actions are justified and legal you will have no problems articulating why you used force and why you used that type of force. We have had three officers killed in the line of duty. Two in one incident when I was a new patrolman with three years on the job and one in 2009 when I was the Chief. It is a violent profession at times.

I also am a big fan of body worn cameras. We have used BWC for the past three years and our officers record every interaction with the public. As a result, our officers are very people friendly and perform in a professional manner with very few citizen complaints.

When I speak with our new hires in my office, I stress the fact that not all our residents are your enemies. I tell them most of our residents support the police and we are here to serve them. So far, we have a great relationship with our residents and we have their support. 

I agree with you that the younger generation cannot verbally communicate due to being raised on computers and cell phones. It is difficult to teach verbal communication but we are working on it.

Bottom line the office in the video should have recognized immediately that this lady was challenged in some manner. When we teach Special Needs People in our mandatory training we tell the officers you do not have to diagnose the condition, just recognize there is a problem and contact the proper agencies to render assistance.

Take care and keep up the good work.

Officer Dan King (ret.) St. Paul (MN) PD responded:

As always, another great article. I think that approaching storm was more of a threat to the officers than she was. The key here was lack of ability/desire to constantly re-evaluate as it unfolded. He definitely stayed calm, but he locked in on arrest mode without investigating further.

I cannot count the number of times I had to take a resistive/violent offender to the ground, but the moment it was over, I picked them up and dusted them off. My favorite go-to line was, “It didn’t have to go that way man. You made some choices there that left me with no choices.” I can honestly say 80-90% of the suspects would say “You’re right” and many would actually apologize to me. I always thanked them and told them I would get them into booking within minutes so as to get the cuffs off. Most appreciated that. 

Early on in my career I must admit it did not always go that way. I think a lot of young go-getter cops out there are wrapped a bit tight in the beginning. They don’t have the experience to read people. Initially I was one of them.

I think if Chauvin had re-evaluated within the first minute or so after Floyd was on the ground, he could have sat him up against the tire and talked him down a bit. He was older, overweight, and was not going to go running off. I know the drugs probably would have killed him in the next 30-45 minutes but at least Chauvin would not have been seen as the monster he was later seen as.

Think of your family. Would you want your mom or other family member treated that way? Yes, hindsight is 20/20, but foresight can be almost as clear if you have the will and determination to use it. Thanks again and be safe.

Sgt. Larry Valencia (ret.) formerly with Denver PD wrote:

I’m retired LE and I have a mother with dementia. I also live in Colorado where this incident happened. I am not condoning the officers’ actions but my first thought was, where is this ladies caretaker? Why is this lady wondering around town alone? I’m guessing that the officer did not recognize that the lady had dementia. If you talk to my mom, if you didn’t know better, you would not know she had dementia. She might have said she is going home or coming home from work. She lives with my brother, but sometimes argues that she does not live there and is going home. 

Dealing with people like this is a common problem. The officer does not recognize that the person has a mental illness or dementia. In this case, the lady will not stop and talk with him, so he cannot determine she has dementia. He thinks she is trying to get away and is becoming frustrated that she will not stop. Does he need to use so much force by tackling her or putting her to the ground? Probably not. Only after she is arrested do we learn her age and that she cannot understand, and that she has dementia. 

I think the department bears some responsibility for lack of training. 

Another case here in Colorado just made the news when 5 first responders were indicted by a grand jury for the death of a young man with mental issues. The scenario is similar. The officers get a call on a suspicious male. They contact him. He tries to leave and won’t talk to the officers. They physically put him down. He is combative and physically tries to get away. The officers retrain him and call for paramedics who administer the drug ketamine to calm him. The male has a heart attack and dies 3 days later. Later the story comes out that he has a mental illness and is obviously scared of the police, but the officers did not know that. We can only operate with what we know at the time. 

Finally, Chief Deputy Dale Ward with Box Elder (UT) Co. Sheriff wrote:

Was this officer raised under a bucket? Did he sleep in class? It is blatantly obvious that this woman either has some physical or mental issues from the very beginning. He has no observation skills whatsoever and takes no time to introduce himself nor to try and explain why he is making contact with her. It isn’t until he has taken her to the ground that he informs her that she has stolen from Walmart. From the confused look on her face in the video it is obvious she has forgotten that interaction with Walmart. 

My dear wife just turned 73. She is in great health and in no way as frail as this poor woman. That said, I have to tell you that if he would have approached my wife with the attitude that he did this woman it would be enough for me to file a complaint against him on that alone. My Deputies are instructed to begin every contact they can with a proper introduction. “Hello, Good Morning, Good Afternoon. I am Deputy Jones and the reason I stopped you is…”  or “What can I do for you today?” or “How can I solve your problem?” (You get the idea.) 

Whatever happened to common decency? My entire career I have lived by the Golden Rule; treat people the way you would want to be treated in the same circumstances. Now I will take it a step further. Treat them as you would like your mother, father, brother, sister, grandmother, grandfather treated. 

If this cop would want his grandmother treated in this way then all I can say is he is a heartless bastard! 

I hate being the Monday Morning Quarterback but if she was going home, why could they not have followed her, offered her a ride, contacted family? Again, it is obvious that she has some kind of issues and is not just an unruly thief. 

Upon arrival at the jail it is fairly obvious she is in some sort of pain and seems to be calmed down. Couldn’t she be allowed to walk in? Still no attempts to talk with her, ask questions or try to begin a dialogue. 

I am unclear as to how he received the information from Walmart. Was it only the information through Dispatch that sent him on the call? Did he talk with them on the phone? Did he go there in person? The purpose and role should have been to get the facts and determine what if any enforcement action to take. The only way to get that would have been to talk with the witnesses and those involved. 

In answer to question #2. In the first 20 seconds of the encounter any Officer should have been able to tell that there were deeper problems than a simple shoplifting attempt. 

When I receive these, and I cannot take the time to look at all of them, I routinely watch the video before reading any of the comments. The first two minutes of this video made me physically ill. I have now read the comments and agree with the analogy 100%. 

We are our own worst enemy. Allowing this kind of behavior to continue in our profession has to stop and stop today!

The last thing I will say is this: When needed I can fight with the best of them. I will go to hell and back to protect my family, my country and my deputies. This is not one of those moments. You have to be able to tell the difference. 

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