Nearly a year after Karen Garner, a 73-year-old woman with dementia, was forcefully arrested by Loveland Police officers after she left a Walmart with $14 of unpaid merchandise, an independent investigation has been launched.
The investigation announcement came just days after attorney Sarah Schielke from The Life and Liberty Law Office filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the department and officers Austin Hopp, Daria Jalali and Sgt. Phil Metzler who arrested Garner on June 26, 2020.
Garner suffered a fractured arm and dislocated shoulder during the arrest, the lawsuit says. In photos from a press release, the back of Garner’s arms and her wrists were badly bruised.
The office of the Eighth Judicial District Attorney Gordon McLaughlin announced the district’s critical incident response team, composed of investigators from 10 area agencies in Larimer and Jackson counties, will investigate the incident.
“We take this responsibility seriously, and our detectives will work with diligence to determine what occurred leading up to, during, and following the incident involving Ms. Garner,” said Jeff Swoboda, chief of the Fort Collins Police Service, the agency that will lead the investigation, in a statement.
The woman's family said the law enforcement probe is a small but long overdue step in the right direction.
On that June day last year, Garner left a local Walmart without paying for a T-shirt, soda, candy and wipe-refills, totaling $13.88 according to the suit. Walmart employees stopped her as she left the store and retrieved the items but did not let Garner pay for them.
As she was walking home picking wildflowers, Hopp, one of the officers, stopped her and approached her. When she turned away from him and indicated she did not understand him, he grabbed her and pushed her to the ground. Court documents say Hopp “violently assaulted her, twisting her arms behind her back, throwing her to the ground and handcuffing her.”
In addition to her dementia, Garner also has sensory aphasia, which causes her difficulty in communicating and understanding others, according to the suit.
On body camera footage released by the attorney’s office and posted to YouTube, Garner can be heard saying “I’m going home,” repeatedly. Officer Jalali helped Hopp restrain Garner. Then Metzler arrived on scene.
In the video, Metzler asked about the mud and blood on Jalali who responded: “A little bloody, a little muddy; you know how it goes,” adding that it was Garner’s blood.
“In the documents I filed with the court, the legal term that I have to use in those documents is that it's an ‘excessive force case,’ but the truth is that it's not an excessive force case when you watch the video, this is a torture case is what it is,” Schielke said in an interview. “And you don't get a group of people to torture a mother of three, a grandmother of nine, 73-years-old, 80 pounds with dementia out of thin air. That's something that's been a long time coming and it's going to require some big-time changes to fix.”
The release of the footage and lawsuit come at a time of a national reckoning over police tactics during arrests, particularly against Black people. Garner and everyone involved in her arrest are white. But Schielke said vulnerable people including the disabled can be taken advantage of by police abusing their power.
After the arrest, Garner was taken to jail. She was denied medical assistance, according to the suit, by the officers. Then someone at the jail arranged for her transport to the hospital.
When reviewed by the district attorney at the time, Cliff Riedel, the charges against Garner were dismissed. But no further investigation was started. Garner’s family did not make a complaint at the time.
In a statement, the Loveland Police Department claims to have learned of the incident around the time of the lawsuit.
“LPD takes very seriously the allegations concerning the arrest of resident Karen Garner,” a press release from the department says, “and shares with the community the concerns about video images that became public on Wednesday [April 14].”
The Loveland officers involved in the arrest are all on administrative leave pending the outcomes of the investigation, according to the department.
In addition to her physical injuries, the lawsuit claims Garner now experiences fear, trauma and anxiety whenever she leaves her home.
“What little freedom and happiness Ms. Garner enjoyed in her life as an elderly adult with declining mental health was, on June 26, 2020, recklessly and deliberately obliterated by the Loveland Police Department,” the lawsuit said.