Martha Bishara, an 87-year-old grandmother who emigrated to the United States from Syria decades ago, often cuts dandelion greens that grow in the wild near her house in Georgia. She tosses them with garlic and lemon to make a salad common in her ancestral homeland, her grandson said.
But a recent forage for the leaves left her injured after a police officer used a Taser on her when she would not drop a knife. The encounter put a small town’s police department under the scrutiny of the national news media amid questions about use of force.
On the afternoon of Aug. 10, Ms. Bishara ambled across the street from the house in Chatsworth she shares with her husband, who is in his 90s, with the knife in her hand, her grandson, Stephen Douhne, said on Friday.
She has trouble walking at her age, and speaks very little English, he said.
An employee at a Boys and Girls Club spotted her on an overgrown section of the club’s property and called the police, a Chatsworth Police Department report said. Ms. Bishara ignored commands from the officers to drop the knife and stop walking, it said.
One officer drew his gun and pointed it at her. Another fired a Taser, striking her in the chest and stomach, Mr. Douhne said. She was handcuffed behind her back and detained at a police station on charges of trespassing and obstructing law enforcement officers, the report said. She was treated at a hospital and released, Mr. Douhne said.
“She did not know what was going on,” he said, referring to her poor understanding of English. “When she was growing up, they didn’t even hardly have school for women.”
In the week that followed, the police department in Chatsworth, a town of more than 4,000 people about 70 miles north of Atlanta, has found itself in the spotlight as it reviews its procedures.
The story was picked apart by local television stations and newspapers. The 911 call was replayed online. Comments poured in to criticize the department.
The police chief, Josh Etheridge, who was one of the three officers who confronted Ms. Bishara, this week addressed the criticism of his department’s handling of the case. He issued a statement defending how he and another officer, Steven Marshall, had handled their interaction with the woman, who is described in the police report as being five feet tall. The chief’s statement and the police report did not identify the third officer.
“And I know everyone is going to say: ‘An 87-year-old woman? How big a threat can she be?’” Chief Etheridge told The Daily Citizen-News of Dalton on Monday. “She still had a knife.”
“I completely understand, and if I hadn’t been there and it would come across my desk, that is the first thing I would ask as well,” he said.
“Why did we Tase an 87-year-old woman?” he added. “I guess in that circumstance, I am glad I was there and saw it firsthand and understand why it occurred. An 87-year-old woman with a knife still has the ability to hurt an officer.”
He did not respond to requests by phone and email for comment on Friday.
Chief Etheridge told the newspaper that the officers’ goal had been to not resort to deadly force. At one point, he took his own knife out and threw it on the ground, trying to indicate to the woman what he wanted her to do with her knife, it said.
The stun gun, he said, “was the lowest use of force we could have used to simply stop that threat at the time.”
The newspaper also published a description of a body camera video taken by the third officer.
The video shows Chief Etheridge, who had his gun drawn, and Officer Marshall, who was holding his Taser, urging the woman to drop the knife. But the recording is from a distance and what the woman is doing with the knife cannot be determined clearly, the newspaper said.
Ms. Bishara’s case was being transferred from municipal court to the state Superior Court, said Bert Poston, the district attorney for the Conasauga Judicial Circuit. He said he had not seen the documents yet, but he understood that the chief had requested the transfer to Superior Court so an independent prosecutor could review it.
“It is an unusual case,” Mr. Poston said in an interview. “We do use-of-force situations all the time,” he added, but the focus of “public concern and media concern is the age of the person.”
The police report said a family member had previously told Ms. Bishara not to be on the club’s property, which was only partly fenced at the time.
Chief Etheridge said less than 10 minutes elapsed between the 911 call about Ms. Bishara, which came around 4:25 p.m., and her being stunned.
According to a copy of the 911 call published by a television station, the club employee reported that he could see the woman on the property with a knife and that she did not appear to speak English. “She’s old, so she can’t get around too well,” he said.
“But she came at someone with a knife, right?” the dispatcher asked. “Or did she just have it?”
“She didn’t try to attack anybody or anything,” the employee said. “It looks like she is walking around looking for something, vegetation to cut down or something. She has a bag, too.”
A message left at the club’s corporate office was not returned.
Solomon Douhne, a cousin of Stephen and a former police officer in Dalton, a nearby town, also questioned the officers’ response.
“It was a ridiculous turn of events,” he told The Daily Citizen-News. “If three police officers couldn’t handle an 87-year-old woman, you might want to reconsider hanging up your badge.”
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