By Alan Gionet

(CBS4) – “I’m going home,” said 73 year old Karen Garner repeatedly as an officer grabbed her, threw her to the ground and arrested her. The lawsuit alleging a violation of her civil rights claims she suffers from sensory aphasia, that impairs her ability to communicate and understand what others are saying.

(credit: The Life & Liberty Law Office)

“Really the first thing that came to mind when I saw the video is the tragedy for this woman. Because she wasn’t able to respond to the officer’s questions,” said the Alzheimer’s Association’s Jim Herlihy. “She clearly wasn’t present.”

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The association knows there are difficulties at times in dealing with the growing population of people with dementia in Colorado. There are currently over 70,000 with one of the many forms, but the Alzheimer’s Association expects it will rise to over 90,000 by 2030. The issues for law enforcement are likely to rise along with the population.

The association shares training with police forces to try to help.

“The training that the Alzheimer’s Association offers will help the officers better determine that something’s amiss here. This woman is not a criminal. She needs a different kind of care.”

Training for first responders has gone online in the pandemic, but it has been going on for a while. Denver and Greeley are among the police agencies that have used the training. Now, following the attention around the arrest of Karen Garner, other departments have signed on, including Steamboat Springs, Estes Park and Loveland.

“Of course at the academy we’re taught to take charge and for the most part that seems to work fairly well,” said Eric Bianchi, a retired police sergeant with the Irvine Police Department who lives in Colorado and volunteers with the Alzheimer’s Association to assist the training.

“Someone with dementia you don’t come up and talk to them as a person who doesn’t have dementia. You approach them straight on. You approach them in a non-threatening way.”

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There are other aspects to calls with people with the various forms of dementia.

“A person with dementia for example will mirror the approaching person or the approaching person’s attitude and demeanor and amplify it. So if a police officer walks up to a person with dementia in an aggressive way, it’s likely to be perceived and the response will be,” said Bianchi.

They may attempt to be tactile.

“They may reach out for your badge and that can send alarm to a police officer but they’re just trying to make sense of what they see,” he added.

Among those with dementia, there are a list of risks. Some law enforcement calls uncover that people with dementia are in at-risk situations being neglected. Other situations can include those with cognitive issues putting others at-risk, particularly if they are no longer competent in driving an automobile or possessing a gun.

“They may be afraid for their own life because they heard a noise, they saw a shadow, or they see someone come to their door who they don’t recognize,” Herlihy explained. “Because if a person owns a gun and they … no longer recognize their neighbors or even their own family there’s potential for a disastrous situation.”

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In the training first responders learn techniques to deal with people in crisis. Respect is a big part of it. “You can actually communicate with someone in a way that is very meaningful to them. And not make things worse,” said Bianchi. “And I think that’s what police officers are all about.”

Alan Gionet