More police funding needed to reduce violence against suspects with dementia
JUNE 15, 2021 - Today is World Elder Abuse Awareness Day. An official United Nations International Day, this year's theme is Access to Justice. As some recent police incidents have shown, the criminal justice system can be a site of serious rights violations for older adults with dementia.
Dementia Justice Canada is calling for increased police funding to help officers recognize cognitive impairment and intervene with compassion. We are also renewing our call for the federal government to address criminal justice in the National Dementia Strategy, an area that has been sorely neglected since the plan was launched in 2019.
Police serve and protect society every day, putting their lives on the line to keep us, our families and communities safe. This weekend, we were devastated to hear about the tragic death of Saskatchewan RCMP Const. Shelby Patton, age 26, who made the ultimate sacrifice to protect the public. While on duty, he was struck and killed by a stolen truck. We share Premier Scott Moe's sorrow: "Our grief is only matched by our tremendous gratitude to Constable Patton for his service, and to every police officer who serves and protects us every day." We hold the Patton family, and the RCMP and policing community, in our thoughts.
Among their many heroic roles, police are key partners in ensuring the safety and well-being of people with dementia who are experiencing distressing symptoms in the community. Mercifully, many interactions are resolved successfully. In July 2020, for example, North Vancouver RCMP responded to a call from a woman whose husband with dementia was agitated after being stuck at home for three days. Officers calmed the man down and then went on a walk with him.
However, police encounters can sometimes result in negative outcomes.
Last summer, for example, Colorado police violently hogtied a 73-year-old woman with dementia after she left Walmart without paying for items worth $14.
In December 2020, Arizona police arrested and jailed an 81-year-old man for trespassing at a coffeehouse where he had been banned for his dementia-related behaviours. At the station, police mocked him about whether he soiled his diaper.
"The undignified, degrading and violent treatment of suspects with dementia is not just an American problem," wrote Heather Campbell Pope, founder of Dementia Justice Canada, in a recent North Shore News opinion-editorial. "In Canada, as the number of people with the disease increases, a corresponding rise in police interactions with this population is projected."
As pandemic restrictions loosen, the fear of re-entering society may put people with dementia at particular risk of police abuse, as anxiety can make symptoms worse.
Training can make a difference. But this takes money.
"While calls to defund police raise worthy concerns, they clash with efforts aimed at enhancing police de-escalation capacity in dementia-related situations," Campbell Pope wrote. "Under police budget cuts, the ageism that permeates every aspect of society means that elder abuse and dementia programs would likely be among the first to be eliminated."
Expanding access to dementia training holds promise to achieve a society in which suspects with dementia have their rights and dignity respected.
How to help
Dementia Justice Canada is encouraging Canadians to:
For more information about World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, please visit the Canadian Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse website.