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Rethinking policing: Helping officers understand dementia

Posted at 8:57 PM, May 12, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-13 17:32:24-04

It happened in Glendale, AZ, and Loveland, CO.

Police officers arrested, jailed, and laughed about elderly people accused of minor crimes, and their families later came forward to say the arrestees didn't know what they were doing due to dementia.

Glendale police arrested Sam Thomas, 81, for allegedly trespassing outside a coffee shop in December.

Loveland Police arrested Karen Garner, 73, last year for allegedly shoplifting soda and detergent from a Walmart.

Advocates say these cases highlight the need to train police on interacting with people who have Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia.

"I think we can all agree that a person with dementia in crisis the last place you want to put them is in jail, and I know many officers we've spoken to who are not okay with that option," said Kinsey McManus, Programs Director for the Alzheimer's Association, Desert Southwest Chapter.

The Alzheimer's Association offers free online training that any officer or firefighter can take, There are lessons on how to respond to calls involving a person with dementia and traffic violations, wandering, shoplifting, and domestic violence, and natural disasters. Each lesson includes role-playing video scenarios. The entire Approaching Alzheimer's: First Responder Training only takes an hour.

The Alzheimer's Association also gives first responders ideas on how to detect quickly whether someone may be cognitively impaired. The association provided TALK tactics for first responders to better communicate with someone who has dementia:

  • Take it slow
  • Ask simple questions
  • Limit reality checks
  • Keep eye contact

Banner's Alzheimer's Institute is also available to provide training to police officers and firefighters.

Jan Dougherty who has taught dementia education in the Valley, said real-life scenarios can be complicated, especially if domestic violence occurs.

"She doesn't want to press charges, but the statutes make them haul him in," Dougherty said. "It's just crazy - some of the things that can happen in these situations - if people aren't fully understanding."

The City of Glendale has just applied to become a Dementia Friendly Community, and part of the process would include dementia training for police officers.