US courts have developed a legal doctrine that protects police from lawsuits for civil rights abuses, wrongful deaths.
A United States city has agreed to pay $3m to a woman with dementia who was roughly arrested by police last year, money her family said now will pay for the around-the-clock care she needs following the incident.
Then-Officer Austin Hopp arrested Karen Garner, 73, after she left a store without paying for $14 worth of items in Loveland, Colorado, about 80 kilometres (50 miles) north of Denver in June 2020.
Police body camera video shows that after she turned away from him, he grabbed her arm and pushed her to the ground. She was still holding the wildflowers she had been picking as she walked through a field. A federal lawsuit that Garner filed claimed he dislocated her shoulder and fractured her arm.
Hopp pushed Garner against the hood of his car, she tried to turn around and repeated that she was trying to go home. He then slammed her back against the car and forced her bent left arm up near her head, holding it, saying, “Are you finished? Are you finished? We don’t play this game.”
The civil money settlement is one of a number of legal settlements reached between US cities and victims of police violence which has become a focus for local authorities and activists nationwide following the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020.
Former officer Hopp and another officer who responded to help him both face criminal charges for assault, a rare consequence for police in the US because of the legal doctrine of “qualified immunity” which protects police in most instances.
In June, former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was sentenced to 22.5 years in prison for the murder of George Floyd whose death had triggered the US protests. Sweeping police reform proposals are stalled in the US Congress.
Police station surveillance video showed Hopp and other officers talking about the arrest, laughing, and joking at times as Garner sat in a holding cell.
Officials in Loveland apologised to Garner and her family in the announcement of the proposed settlement on Wednesday and listed steps they have taken in response to her arrest, including a pending independent investigation and changes to how it reviews cases when police use force.
“The settlement with Karen Garner will help bring some closure to an unfortunate event in our community but does not upend the work we have left to do,” City Manager Steve Adams said.
The announcement came a day after the death of a 19 year old, who was armed with a knife and in a reported mental health crisis when he was shot by a Loveland police officer last month.
Garner’s lawyer, Sarah Schielke, released internal reports that show that some supervisors had signed off on Hopp’s use of force against Garner, including some who noted they had watched the body camera footage.
While the settlement will allow Garner’s family to provide her with the best care possible, Schielke said full justice required a change in leadership. Everyone who was involved with Garner’s arrest or fostered an environment where it could happen should lose their jobs, she said, offering to donate $50,000 to a dementia or Alzheimer’s charity if the city’s police chief resigned or was fired in the next month.
Chief Bob Ticer told The Denver Post that he did not plan to step down.
“I understand the emotion, I understand those demands,” he said. “But my responsibility here is to ensure the investigations (into the Garner incident) that are moving forward are handled professionally.”
Garner, a mother of three and a grandmother of nine, has not talked about what happened since the day after, when she kept asking why this had happened to her, her daughter-in-law Shannon Steward said.
“I don’t want to see this happen to anyone else’s families again. I don’t want to see it,” said Garner’s daughter Alissa Swartz, who had sprigs of wildflowers pinned to her shirt as did Steward.
Garner is not aware of the settlement, which will have to be approved by a probate court because of her condition and administered by a conservator, Schielke said.
At a court hearing last month to weigh the evidence against him, Hopp’s lawyer Jonathan Datz argued that police supervisors determined his actions to be acceptable. A representative from Datz’s office declined to comment to The Associated Press on the city’s settlement offer, which is separate from the criminal proceeding.
Investigators found that Hopp had filed reports to mislead his superiors and protect himself, according to his arrest affidavit. He did not mention Garner’s shoulder injury in an initial report.