A 73-year-old woman with dementia and sensory aphasia walked out of Walmart with approximately $13.88 worth of merchandise she didn’t pay for. Employees stopped the woman and took her and the unconcealed items back into the store. She offered to pay for the merchandise but they refused to take her money and let her go. At some point she pulled down the mask of one of the employees.
The store then, apparently due to her behavior, called 911 and informed them about the incident and described the woman. By no accounts that I found, including the conversations of the officers on the scene, did Walmart ask for, or want, the woman to be arrested.
Footage from a body camera worn by a 26-year-old male police officer begins by showing him pulling his squad car over to the side of the road upon finding the woman walking along the parkway. Apparently, he had his lights on and activated some portion of his siren system before he stopped his vehicle in an attempt to get the woman’s attention.
Within 25 seconds of exiting his squad the officer went hands-on with the older woman bringing her to the ground.
Here’s the video:
The overall result of this year-old case includes, among many other things: the woman having her shoulder dislocated, treatment being denied for a number of hours, abhorrent overall behavior on the part of several police personnel, two police officers losing their jobs and being charged with multiple misdemeanors and felonies, and the people who hate and want to abolish the police given more fodder for their rantings claiming that this incident is reflective of all policing everywhere.
It certainly isn’t.
This episode occurred in June 2020. I bring it up now because the case caught media attention again because of preliminary hearings in August. This compelled me to watch the entire unedited BWC from the originating officer and then the footage from inside the police department.
Calibre Press has more than 15 instructors from around the United States. Combined they have over 300 years of experience. I sent the video to them along with my visceral and unfiltered comments and opinions. Their responses back were just as visceral and even more incensed at what they saw and heard.
Education and Discussion
When we edit these videos and write articles summarizing them we do so for education, training and discussion purposes. Mostly we do this for fellow officers, supervisors, and trainers. With that in mind, let’s examine this incident from just a few perspectives. There are many more that need to be analyzed in detail, but time and space are limited.
I like to consider the most basic of questions when assessing an officer’s behavior. For example:
- What was his role?
As I said, the most basic of questions, but they’re often ignored when trying to figure out what went wrong.
1. What was the professional purpose of the officer in this case upon receiving the radio call? What was his role?
Note the words purpose and role; both overlooked perspectives for some in the police world.
There is an on-going argument among many focused on the words warrior and guardian as they relate to the description and perception of police officers in this country and their role in their communities. In my opinion this is ridiculous and exhausting.
The Epilogue in our Street Survival II book addresses this topic. In it, I basically say that to eliminate either perspective, either word, either position, is absurd.
In reality, we are both! And often at the same time.
The word warrior is worrisome for many. It conjures up visions of violence-obsessed combatants always looking for the next fight.
For some within the profession, the word guardian is cringe-worthy, conjuring visions of being relegated solely to social services responsibilities, not policing.
The absolute truth is that at times we must be both. As I said in the book, the vast majority of the almost one million law enforcement officers know the difference between the roles and when to be what. They are exceptionally good at balance.
For example, if someone is shooting up the local Walmart, killing people in the moment, the warrior part of an officer’s mentality needs to be the one engaged with such evil. Someone with skill and bravery beyond description is the one you want entering the store and stopping the mayhem and murder.
That said, I acknowledge that in most cases police officers are the guardians of their communities. They understand that role and do it exceptionally well. They are smart enough to understand who they need to be, depending on the situation, the circumstances, and the people they’re dealing with.
Back to this particular case and video. I believe that what we see here is a lack of understanding of purpose and role in the moment.
There is an old saying, “To a hammer everything looks like a nail.”
I admit that as a young 24-year-old police officer my main objective was looking for the ever-lurking criminals. Always on the lookout for the nefarious. On patrol, during traffic stops, eating lunch in local restaurants…it was perpetual.
I quickly learned however, that most of the 45,000 citizens living in the Chicago suburb I patrolled weren’t criminals. Yes, I certainly did arrest countless lawbreakers, from domestic abusers and thieves to rapists and murderers. But most people were not actual criminals. Some made traffic mistakes, speeding and such, but most I encountered were normal citizens. Many were in need, confused, hurt, and needed assistance.
Treating all those people in the same manner would have been a drastic miscalculation.
Reading people in the moment; understanding who they are, what they are experiencing, understanding their current emotion and interpreting their intent was a skill I had to master.
To break it down to the most reality-based concept: Police Officers, Peace Officers, are in the human behavior business.
Read that stand-alone sentence again.
Police are in the human behavior business!
I’ve been teaching that concept for 30 years. The bottom line is that those in this profession are in the people business. Cops only exist because of people. People who need protecting. People who need to be stopped from hurting other people. People who need help and assistance.
To view yourself only as a ‘law enforcer’ is a fundamental and monumental mistake.
Everyone is not a nail to your hammer.
Most of you know that very well and certainly don’t need me to tell you.
But in this case, in the mind of this officer, what was his purpose? His role? How did he view the elderly woman from the time he received the dispatch to the last moment he spent time with her?
He spots the woman, activates his light and some form of his siren, but she just keeps walking. She’s obviously slight and frail. At some point later on he said in jest something to the effect of, “She only weighs about 20 pounds.”
In reality, some reports indicate that she weighed as little as 80 pounds and at most 130. Either way, small and petite.
After he exited his squad his first words were, “Alright let’s stop ma’am.”
She doesn’t. She certainly isn’t running but she does keep walking.
Remember the call. It wasn’t a “shoplifting just occurred and the suspect fled.” The store described the situation as I explained it above.
“I don’t think you want to play it this way. Ma’am please stop,” the officer says.
As he approached her he said, “You don’t want to stop for the lights on, siren? Stop!”
When he walks up to her, the short, frail woman looked up at the officer. She then put her arms out with palms up and shook her head no as she garbled some unintelligible words.
The officer mentioned Walmart as she smiled and began walking again. The officer then said, “Do you need to be arrested right now? No, no….OK, let’s stop.”
Let’s stop our examination right here. I’m acutely aware that hindsight is 20/20. Did the officer know that she had dementia and sensory aphasia (the inability to understand spoken, written, or tactile speech symbols due to damage to an area of the brain)?
No of course not! But, but, but…
Can’t he tell immediately that she is no threat, was elderly, isn’t lucid and coherent in the moment, and there was no actual need for an arrest anyway?
Let’s look at the bottom line.
If Walmart just made notification that the event occurred and that they described, which they did, that they took the items back and let her go, what is the professional purpose for the stop?
Think about that. Just because someone calls 911 and reports a person for doing something wrong, including pulling down an employee’s mask, does that mean it is a criminal offense? That the perpetrator needs be arrested on sight?
While you may be arguing either side of those questions, consider the reality here. The woman is about five feet tall, elderly and weighs maybe 80 pounds!
I’ll cut off any argument of this kind right here and now.
Could she still be dangerous, in possession of a weapon, a knife, a gun? Yeah, anything is possible. But again, based on the totality of the circumstances in this case? You view this woman as an imminent threat?
A very young officer in one of my classes walked up to me on a break and essentially said this to me: “I was taught and act as though anyone can kill me at any time. I don’t care how old they are. I know that anyone can kill me at any time. So, how should I then treat people?”
My response was simple and succinct: “Then kill them all.”
He looked at me and said, “What?”
I repeated obviously for effect, “Then kill them all.”
“First, any trainer who tells you everyone is out to kill you should be fired. Second, here is the reality. Statistically, no one is out to kill you. Theoretically, yes, anyone can. But the key to this job is understanding reality, reading people and making sound judgments in the moment. You are in the human behavior business and understanding and learning human behavior is the most important skill, bar none, in this job. Balance is the key, and it is the hardest part of the profession. If you really think everyone is out to kill you, quit this job because you won’t be able to function professionally with that belief system ingrained in your brain.”
I then used the hammer and nail analogy.
In the video we’re discussing the officer seemed, from my perspective, to view the woman as a criminal. His forever hammer found another nail.
He didn’t entertain the possibility that the woman was, in fact, a confused, nonviolent elderly woman who needed assistance. Her very being and immediate behavior should have been obvious in the moment.
Certainly, going hands-on that quickly was unnecessary. At least in my view, but my view is gleaned from 30 years LE experience and dealing with people like this hundreds of times.
Something we teach in several of our seminars: Time is almost always on your side as an officer. Almost always.
In this case, rather than trying to engage the woman and determine what is happening, further investigating her state of mind, the officer grabbed her from behind by the arms and brought her to the ground. He never asked her any questions, other than to question why she wasn’t stopping. He didn’t give her a chance to talk to him. He just went charging in to arrest.
During that time, you can hear the woman say, “I’m going home.”
Did she resist?
Was her resistance due to her being a crazed, dangerous criminal attempting to evade arrest?
She was obviously confused and not of right mind. And that’s not 20/20 hindsight bloviating. I guarantee you if the officer took a few more seconds to talk to this woman he would have discovered what was obvious: she wasn’t a nail!
His role wasn’t that of a hammer. His guardian side, his human side was in need here.
Question is, why wasn’t it?
2. Did the officer possess the skills and abilities to accomplish his professional goal?
I’ll make this short as I’m going way too long and my editor is going to have fits.
The officer probably did not possess the human behavior skills, at least in this case, to accomplish his professional goal which, as we have established, was to assist not arrest.
That’s my perspective as a person with six decades on the planet.
Law enforcement’s most systemic issues aren’t racist institutions and rampant warrior trainings. Our most significant systemic issues are in how we lead our people and how we don’t train them in what actually matters.
First-line supervisors are the most essential element of the command staff. No ifs, ands or buts about it. Those in closest regular contact with the line personnel make or break police organizations. They need to be involved, to actually lead!
I love the physical aspect of training. I was a Control Tactics instructor for 20 years. Took martial arts for 16. I loved to shoot my pistol, though I don’t really know much about guns.
But the most important skill set that should be the foundation and focus of all training in every police organization everywhere in this country are real people skills!
What I mean by that is that on the very first day of any academy, recruits should be told that they are in the human behavior business above everything else. Above enforcing laws and making traffic stops. They must understand they are in the human behavior business.
Then, they need to be taught basic communication competencies. They have to be taught how to read people in the moment. Training should include body language, verbal analysis, 360° communication skills, understanding the impact of emotions on behavior, etc.
Nothing should take precedence over those things.
Yes, they certainly have to be taught how to physically control the uncontrollable (which we don’t do in any capacity, by the way), how to safely shoot their weapons, understand the legal parameters of force, etc.
However, people and communication skills are the absolute key!
Conclusion from a Certain Perspective
People born after 1990 have had cellphones virtually their entire lives and it’s getting worse. The average kid gets a phone at around nine years of age.
Throughout human history, for thousands of years, around the age of eight human children want to move away from their parents and gravitate towards others their own age. They went outside and interacted for hours, days, weeks, years. Although they didn’t know it, they were becoming human to human interaction specialists. They were learning to read facial expressions, deal with conflict, pick up body language and paralinguistic cues as they played games, built forts and generally spent time with others.
No parents intervened to save hurt feelings and thwart any semblance of discomfort.
Today, children interact through a device. If someone hurts their feelings in person, they deal with those feelings later on through social media or on a faceless text chat. Often they recruit others to their side looking for viral nurturing.
Parents get involved, which results in those damaged feelings never having to progress through natural processes and to resolution. There never has to be an examination of personal behavior, only resultant emotions and laying fault on someone else.
This impedes the ability for people to resolve personal conflict, recognize pain, and develop personal empathy.
Why conclude with this?
That generation—and I’m not saying all in that subset are the same—but that generation is the next generation of police officers. They are here. Many most perhaps don’t match the description I just laid out, but many do.
How skilled are they in navigating face-to-face interaction? Human behavior skills? Conflict management skills? Dealing with personal attacks, foul language directed at them and controlling their own emotions? Can they recognize people in need and differentiate between someone hurting and someone who wants to hurt?
How do we, as bosses, manage people lacking those skills? How much training do we need to give them? How often?
I could go on for pages, but I won’t.
I want to know what YOU think! Watch the video again now that we’ve addressed some particular issues. What do you see? What’s your personal and professional reaction? What could have been done differently? Am I off base? On target? LET ME KNOW!
E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org to share your thoughts and reactions.