Shooting of elderly Bakersfield man points to gaps in police training

The shooting of a 73-year-old Bakersfield, Calif., man shocked residents and elder advocates alike.

Felix Adamo/The Bakersfield Californian via AP
In this photo provided by The Bakersfield Californian, activist Dolores Huerta (c.) speaks at a candlelight vigil for Francisco Serna, 73, on Tuesday, in Bakersfield, Calif.

Members of a Bakersfield, Calif., man’s family were shocked this week when they received news that 73-year-old Francisco Serna lost his life in a police shooting in the early hours of Monday morning.

Mr. 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 outside. Yet after police responded with deadly force, investigators discovered that Serna was unarmed, carrying only a wooden crucifix.

After a year of charged discussion about police violence and policing strategies, some experts say that this shooting is yet more evidence that something needs to change in the way that law enforcement officers are trained to respond to these situations. And reports that Serna may have been suffering from the 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.”

Family members are also confused about what happened on Monday morning, and why it happened, just days after the shooting.

“My dad did not own a gun. He was a 73-year-old retired grandpa, just living life,” the victim’s son Rogelio Serna said, according to the Los Angeles Times. “He should have been surrounded by family at old age, not surrounded by bullets.”

Family members say that Serna was exhibiting early signs of dementia prior to the incident, and frequently liked to wander the streets at night in order to tire himself out enough for sleep.

Early this week, Serna was taking one of these walks when neighbors spotted him and became concerned when they noticed a darkly colored object sticking out of his pocket, prompting at least two calls to local law enforcement.

Bakersfield police report that when they arrived on the scene, they requested that Serna take both of his hands out of his jacket pockets. Serna appeared to ignore them, however, and continued walking toward them, prompting one officer to shoot him several times.

Texas State University professor and dementia expert Christopher Johnson tells The Christian Science Monitor that Serna’s behavior is not atypical among patients diagnosed with dementia, who are often mistaken for malicious criminals because of their unusual behavior.

For instance, individuals 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 Dr. Johnson.

Much of the problem has to do with the lack of policies in place to deal with individuals with dementia, Johnson says. 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.

Both Johnson and Mr. Wender tell the Monitor that greater education and training can be a large part of the solution. Despite the high incidence of crimes among individuals with dementia, most police officers have no training to guide them through encounters with such individuals.

In many ways, this problem closely mirrors the struggle that police departments face while identifying and assisting individuals with mental illnesses. In 2015, the Monitor's Noelle Swan reported on Los Angeles's model for training officers to deal with individuals with mental illness. She wrote:

About 12 percent of the nation’s 18,000 law enforcement agencies use crisis intervention training to help officers respond compassionately to individuals in the throes of mental distress, says [Fred Osher, director of health systems and services policy at The Council of State Governments]. But in the end, officers are left with just two choices: arrest them or send them to the emergency room.

“That doesn’t cut it,” says Garcia. “There are significant shortcomings when you have just one single-layered approach.”

The LAPD deploys doctors, nurses, and social workers alongside patrol officers. At any given time, there are four or five officer-clinician teams patrolling together. For officers responding on their own, clinicians staffing a MEU triage desk are available 24 hours a day to consult.

And case assessment managers follow up with individuals to make sure they are receiving the correct services.

As law enforcement agencies and policymakers look for ways to properly protect and care for the 5.4 million Americans diagnosed with Alzheimer's, they might perhaps look to models such as the system in place in Los Angeles for inspiration. 

Meanwhile, Bakersfield’s police department has expressed deep regret for the incident.

“I’d like to offer my condolences to the Serna family. This is a very tragic event. It is tragic when a family loses a family member at any time, but when you lose a father or a grandfather during the holiday season, that makes it that much worse,” said Bakersfield Assistant Police Chief Lyle Martin, according to The Washington Post.

“I cannot tell you enough that this community is affected by Mr. Serna losing his life,” he added. “This is a tragic incident.”

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