CA Shooting Issue: Can Police Deal With Dementia Sufferers?

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Family members were shocked to learn that Francisco Serna, 73, lost his life in a Bakersfield, Ca., police shooting in the early hours of Monday. Serna was wandering the dark neighborhood with his hand in his jacket pocket when concerned neighbors called the police, and said that an unknown individual was brandishing a revolver at women. After police responded with deadly force, investigators discovered that Serna was unarmed, carrying only a wooden crucifix, reports the Christian Science Monitor. Experts say the shooting is more evidence that something needs to change in the way that law enforcement officers are trained to respond to these situations.

Reports that Serna may have been suffering from early stages of dementia underscores concerns about how well-equipped police are to discern the difference between people who pose a threat and those who may be in a state of emotional distress or confusion. “In the moment, it is difficult to untangle these situations,” says Jonathan Wender, a former police officer now working for policing consultant group Polis Solutions. “Police work is just one more kind of human performance, and it involves stress and confusion.” Texas State University dementia expert Christopher Johnson says Serna’s behavior is not atypical among patients diagnosed with dementia, who are often mistaken for malicious criminals because of their unusual behavior. People with dementia are sometimes arrested for crimes like shoplifting or indecent exposure in public, and “oftentimes police don’t believe that these people have dementia,” says Johnson. In some states, such as Indiana, there are official policies in place to help law enforcement officers handle encounters with persons who have been diagnosed with dementia.

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