Chicago cop's actions against mentally ill woman probed
November 6, 2007
BY MARY MITCHELL Sun-Times Columnist
Unless an 82-year-old grandmother is holding a loaded gun, there's no excuse for police officers to use a Taser.
But that's what happened Oct. 29 when Chicago Police officers went to a West Side home to make a "well-being" check. The officers were responding to a request from the city's Department of Aging.
Apparently, the department had received an anonymous tip that Lillian Fletcher, who has a history of mental illness, was home alone and in need of assistance.
When Fletcher refused to open her door, police were called. Although Fletcher cracked the door, she still refused to let her visitors into the house.
But police officers wouldn't take no for an answer and pushed their way in. Fletcher ran and got the hammer she keeps beside her bed.
"My grandmother is easily confused," her granddaughter, Traci Taylor, said Monday. "She probably didn't know what was going on."
Taylor is one of her grandmother's caregivers. She said her grandmother has schizophrenia and dementia.
Normally Fletcher is looked after by a homemaker or by her own daughter and Taylor. Only recently did these women find themselves between homemakers.
"She can be belligerent," Taylor said. But she's 82 years old, 5 feet 1 inch and weighs no more than 160 pounds, she added.
"I just don't think they should be Tasing 82-year-old women. That's ridiculous."
Reportedly swinging a hammer
According to a police source, when officers arrived, Fletcher was "swinging a hammer" and becoming "increasingly violent."
When Fletcher failed to stop as ordered, an officer discharged a Taser. Also, it's worth noting that Fletcher hasn't been charged with violating any laws.
"The matter is being looked into by the Office of Professional Standards, and the Chicago Police Department will also be reviewing the matter to determine if procedures were followed," a police spokesman said.
After Tasing Fletcher, officers took her to Mt. Sinai Hospital, where she was treated. Her family is concerned Fletcher may have suffered a stroke. Citing privacy laws, a hospital spokesman declined comment.
But Taylor said a social worker at the hospital advised relatives of the circumstances surrounding Fletcher's hospitalization. Fletcher was released five days later, but she is still complaining about her hip and a burn on her abdomen. Doctors told Fletcher's family that she should be seen by a neurologist because she has fluid on her brain and may have to undergo surgery.
'There has to be another way'
Unfortunately, despite Fletcher's documented mental condition, police officers -- including a sergeant -- resorted to the same tactics they use when they are dealing with violent criminals.
For instance, last August, Chicago Police officers were accused of causing the death of a South Side man after they subdued him with a Taser. The officers were responding to a 911 call placed by the man's family. Allegedly, Gefery Johnson was combative and resisted arrest. Officers used a Taser and pepper spray on Johnson, and he later died.
Last week, the Cook County medical examiner's office ruled Johnson's death "accidental" and blamed cocaine intoxication rather than the Taser.
About 150 field training officers will soon be equipped with new Tasers. About 200 sergeants have had Tasers for about five years. Obviously, there are times when a Taser should be used to keep the peace. And disabling an out-of-control person is better than shooting that person and asking questions later.
But in Fletcher's case, police officers showed extremely poor judgment. Even if she didn't look elderly, there was no question she was mentally disturbed.
How do these police officers justify using such force on an elderly woman? Where was their compassion?
"I want people to know what happened," Taylor said. "I want them to try and do something as far as regulating Taser use. We're talking about an 82-year-old woman.
"There has to be another way to stop her -- use your stick and block the hammer," she said. "Knock it out of her hand. How hard is that?"