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Grandma Got Arrested: Police, Excessive Force, and People with Dementia


Recent events have shone a light on the particular vulnerability of people with dementia to police violence. Police are arresting people with dementia and using excessive force to do it—drawing their firearms, deploying tasers, and breaking bones.

To date, little attention has been paid to the burgeoning number of people with dementia, one of society’s most vulnerable populations, and their experiences with the criminal justice system. This Article examines how dementia leads people to engage in activity that appears criminal (shoplifting (forgetting to pay), and trespass (wandering), for instance) and the disproportionate response of police. In several cases where people with dementia (PWDs) have committed “crimes” as a result of their condition, police have misread confusion for defiance and used excessive force. These cases display a pattern of police conduct consistent with the “warrior model” of policing—one that undermines the relationship between police and the community, makes police see obvious symptoms of dementia as rebelliousness, and encourages the unnecessary use of force. This model is at odds with how the public sees the role of the police. These cases provide another reason that the “guardian model” of policing should be adopted instead. As with so many other instances of police brutality against marginalized and minority populations, the warrior model contributes to police violence and impedes the adoption of new ways of policing. The calls for police reform should not ignore this population, who not only deserve our particular respect but are also the among the most fragile and vulnerable.

Rashmi Goel *

* Associate Professor, Sturm College of Law, University of Denver.