A 73-year-old grandmother of nine was picking wildflowers on the side of the road in Loveland, Colorado, last summer when a local cop got out of his patrol vehicle and told her to stop—beginning a police encounter that ultimately left her with broken bones, bruised, and traumatized.
Loveland Police Officer Austin Hopp had been driving behind Karen Garner with his overhead lights on because she was accused of shoplifting from a nearby Walmart. But Garner did not appear to notice, according to body camera footage published by Garner’s attorney Wednesday.
Garner has dementia and sensory aphasia, an inability to understand spoken and written speech, according to a federal civil rights lawsuit filed on her behalf this week against the city of Loveland and three officers involved in Garner’s arrest.
Hopp asked Garner why she didn’t stop after he activated his lights and siren, at which point Garner gave him a blank expression, said something unintelligible, and started to move away.
“No, no, no,” Hopp said, according to bodycam footage.
Hopp then grabbed the 80-pound woman, threw her to the grass, and twisted her arms behind her back, bodycam footage shows. Garner was still clutching a handful of wildflowers. A second cop, Daria Jalali, arrived within minutes and assisted in the arrest.
Then, despite Garner’s evident distress and small stature, Hopp pushed her left arm “painfully upward,” according to body camera footage and the lawsuit. Police repeatedly threw her on the ground, and hog-tied her on the side of the road—a controversial restraint that’s been banned by some police departments. Once her feet were bound, Jalali, Hopp, and their on-scene supervisor, Sgt. Philip Metzler, lifted her into the back of a police vehicle, according to the lawsuit.
“I’m going home,” Garner cried repeatedly.
As a result of the incident, Garner was left with a dislocated shoulder, a fractured humerus bone, and a sprained wrist, the lawsuit alleges. She was covered with bruises by the time she arrived at a hospital—although she wasn’t taken to the medical facility until several hours after she was first stopped by police, according to the lawsuit.
After the lawsuit was filed Wednesday and covered by local media outlets including KUSA, an NBC affiliate in Denver, the Loveland Police Department said in a statement that it’d investigate the encounter. Officials added they’d only heard of the incident this week, having not received any prior complaints. In the meantime, the department has placed Hopp on administrative leave, and reassigned Jalali and Metzler to administrative duties, according to the statement posted on the department’s Facebook page.
But Garner’s family wants to make sure this doesn’t happen to anyone ever again—and they’re hoping for significant changes in personnel, leadership, and policy at the Loveland Police Department.
“This is not a ‘single bad apple’ type of scenario,” Sarah Schielke, Garner’s attorney in the lawsuit, told VICE News. “This is a systemic, cultural, deeply ingrained, coming-down-from-leadership type of attitude, where this is not community policing—it’s community terrorism, practically.”
She added: “If somebody’s dumb enough, in their mind, to not capitulate, they’re going to pay for it. Even if you’re an elderly disabled lady.”
While Garner’s children were doing their best to keep an eye on her, she slipped out to Walmart the afternoon of her arrest, Schielke said. Later, Garner wound up wandering out of the store without paying for Pepsi, a candy bar, a T-shirt, and some stain-removing wipes—worth less than $14 altogether.
Walmart employees stopped her and took the items back. They then refused her attempt to pay and called the police, according to the lawsuit.
Casey Staheli, a spokesperson for Walmart, said in a statement to VICE News: “We stopped the customer after noticing her attempt to take merchandise from the store without paying for it. To protect the safety of our people, the police were called only after Ms. Garner became physical with an associate.”
Hopp found Garner a few blocks away from the Walmart as she was walking home. When Garner appeared confused at his questions, he said to her: “You just left Walmart. Do you need to be arrested right now?” Then he tackled her.
At one point, a concerned citizen stopped and asked the officers, “Do you have to use that much aggression?”
“What are you doing? Get out of here,” Hopp said, according to body camera footage.
The man, who had pulled over to the side of the road, asked to know who Hopp’s sergeant was, saying he had seen the cop throw “that little kid.” (Garner is 5 feet tall, according to the lawsuit.)
“She just stole from Walmart and refused to stop, refused to listen to lawful orders, and to fight me,” Hopp told the man. “This is what happens when you fight the police. I have to use force to safely detain her. That’s what this is. This isn’t just some random act of aggression.”
Later, when Metzler arrived and the officers were recounting the events of the arrest together, Hopp admitted he “struggled” with Garner.
“You’re a little muddy, dude,” Metzler said, according to body camera footage.
“A little bloody, a little muddy, that’s how it works,” Jalali responded.
The officers were referring to Garner’s blood.
She was taken to jail and charged with theft of less than $50, obstructing a peace officer, and resisting arrest, according to the Loveland Reporter-Herald, though the Larimer County District Attorney agreed to dismiss the case in August 2020.
The intense encounter with police has still left its scars, though. Garner’s children have told Schielke that she’s able to find some peace playing solitaire, listening to music, or doing crafts at a memory care facility, but has otherwise become withdrawn and mistrustful. They noted that in the past, Garner was the ultimate, crafty home-maker, who loved to go to concerts and play cards.
“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 states.
Tom Hacker, a spokesman for the Loveland Police Department, said the agency's professional standards unit will examine the incident. "There's no record associated with this event, no frame of video, no shred of any evidence that won't be looked at pretty thoroughly," he told VICE News.
It was unclear if the officers named in the lawsuit had attorneys who could speak on their behalf; the local police union didn’t immediately respond to VICE News' request for comment.