Earlier this year, deputies with the Warren County Sheriff’s Department in Virginia attempted a traffic stop on a 77 year old man named Ralph Ennis, who was apparently suffering from dementia. He didn’t stop, but instead drove to a gas station. An officer from a different agency, the Front Royal Police Department, captured what happened on his body cam.
The footage shows a deputy slamming the elderly man’s head against a truck while pinning his arms behind his back. A second deputy then tackles the man to the ground, hitting the man’s head on the concrete.
“Please let me up!” the man cried out, with two officers on top of him. “Let me go!” Just prior to all the violence, the video shows that all the man did was to get out of his car and walk towards the deputies with his keys in his hand.
The Front Royal officer was clearly shaken by what he saw and said so while his body cam was still recording, as he left the scene. USA Today reported on the aftermath. The elderly man was apparently then hospitalized with a brain bleed. He would never get out of the hospital. He died about two weeks later.
Unbelievably, but not surprisingly, the government medical examiner ruled that the death was of natural causes. I’m sure that has nothing to do with the fact that the man’s son filed a lawsuit against the government.
Here’s the complaint:
Let me repeat what I just said a few videos ago: there are two kinds of people in this world; those who support the “he deserved it defense,” and those who support the Constitution unconditionally. Those who are willing to allow police officers to bend the rules, so long as the victim deserved it, in their eyes, haven’t fully thought things through.
Case in point: Your usual Fourth Amendment Fudd, who is the same guy that thinks the Second Amendment protects his bolt action .30-06, but not your AR-15, is okay with the police beating someone unnecessarily who chose to lead the cops on a pursuit. The same Fourth Amendment Fudd who is okay allowing police officers the discretion to mete out their version of justice with no due process, however is NOT okay with the cops beating his elderly father with dementia who had no idea what was actually happening. If you allow one, then you have chosen to allow the other. By definition. You either protect all constitutional rights, or you protect none.
This is just one of many recent incidents involving police officers and elderly people with dementia. Police officers have been enabled to fly-off the handle at the slightest perceived threat to their authority. They have been enabled to fly-off the handle on the basis of perceived threats to officer safety. They have been authorized to act like robots; to attack at the slightest provocation, without compassion for those they’re entrusted to serve and protect.
The law assumes that police officers will make mistakes; that they will have bad information, or misunderstand the situation. The law judges them objectively – not based on what they actually thought or intended, but based on how a reasonable officer would act in the same circumstances.
And here’s the problem. Most of us would look at those circumstances, including good police officers, such as the guy wearing the body cam in this footage, and say, “hell no.” We are not robots. We are supposed to be able to adapt; to deal with different types of people in different scenarios. What would happen if a confused old man walked into a bank, holding his keys in his hand. Would he be immediately tackled and handcuffed by security? Or would any competent person recognize that they’re dealing with an elderly man who might be confused? Does it ever cross the mind of a reasonable police officer that a vehicle may not be stopping because it’s an elderly driver who is confused or suffering from dementia? I would argue that a reasonable officer should be concerned first with protecting and serving an elderly man.
As the U.S. population ages and more people develop dementia, older people are increasingly running into problems with the police. There’s no national count of how many people with dementia are arrested each year. But an analysis of U.S. crime data by The Marshall Project shows that the number of arrests of people over 65 grew by nearly 30% between 2000 and 2020 – at the same time that overall arrests fell by nearly 40%. The number of elder arrests is growing faster than the population is aging. National data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also estimates that from 2010 to 2020, more than 12,000 people 65 and older ended up in a hospital emergency room for injuries caused by police or private security.
Unfortunately, police officers are not taught to think about the citizen. They are taught to only think about officer safety. It’s drilled into them. Citizen safety is last. That’s our problem. But “officer safety” is not mentioned anywhere in our Constitution. Where it exists is in police officer training. Instead, police officers should be trained in how to help people. They are the ones who wanted to be in a public service job. That’s what it’s about. It’s not about them being scared. If they’re scared, go find another job.
Freedom is scary. Deal with it.