When a grandmother was charged with criminal trespassing and obstructing an officer, eyebrows around the community were raised. Family members and neighbors came to the woman’s defense and expressed how they felt the incident was “unnecessarily escalated.”
On the other side, the police department tried to justify their actions by saying that the officer “used a Taser instead of using deadly force.” But the question remains of why anyone would feel threatened by an older woman cutting flowers in the first place. Here’s what happened.
Dandelions for Cooking
When Martha Al-Bishara went on a walk on a Friday near her home in northern Georgia, she left with the intent to pick dandelions. It was common for her to collect the plants for cooking purposes and making meals for her family was something she enjoyed. But the day would go differently than others even though Al-Bishara picked dandelions in the same area she always did.
Boys and Girls Club
The 87-year-old woman ventured outside with a kitchen knife to cut the flowers and a plastic bag in the other hand to collect them. She was doing what she always did when she crossed the street from her home in Chatsworth, Georgia, and arrived at a partially fenced lot belonging to a branch of the Boys and Girls Club.
Elderly Woman Picking Dandelions
According to The Washington Post, she began gathering the plants that she wanted when someone on the property noticed her in her blue dress and brown scarf around her head. The man named Tanner felt threatened for some reason by the woman — so threatened in fact, that he called the police.
The 911 call came in on Friday at about 4:28 p.m., when Tanner, an employee of the club, told the operator, “This lady is walking on the bike trail, she has a knife and she won’t leave. She doesn’t speak English.” Tanner gave the operator the address of 502 Chestnut Street and he informed the operator that the woman was outside and that there were no children outside. All he kept saying was, “She told me she doesn’t speak English and keeps walking up the trail with a knife.”
Frail Older Woman
Tanner continued, saying, “She’s old so she can’t get around too well, but, looks like she’s walking around looking for something, like, vegetation to cut down or something. There’s a bag too.” When they asked Tanner if she came at someone with a knife, he replied saying: “No, she just brought the knife onto the property in her hand. She didn’t try to attack anybody or anything.”
Describing the Woman
He proceeded to describe what the woman was wearing and asked the operator if they could send someone to the property. Soon after 4:30 p.m., two officers and the chief of the Chatsworth Police Department arrived at the scene, where a Boys and Girls Club staff member escorted them to the back of the property. There, the officers spotted Al-Bishara standing on a hill holding “a white plastic bag in her left hand and a steak knife in her right hand.”
Verbal Requests to Drop the Knife
The officers did not immediately realize that the woman didn’t speak English, but, according to the police, Al-Bishara did not respond to multiple verbal requests to put down her kitchen knife. Instead, according to The Washington Post, she continued walking and collecting dandelions. “While we were approaching the female she bent down to the ground and cut a weed and stood back up holding the weed in her left hand with the plastic bag,” the police report said.
Show by Example
“We kept telling her to drop the knife,” the report continued. “The female would look at us. Her demeanor was calm even seeing us with our guns out.” The Chatsworth police chief at one point even threw his own pocket knife on the ground “in an attempt to show the female that we wanted her to drop the knife,” according to the report.
Tasered By Police
But, when Al-Bishara didn’t respond and began walking down the hill toward the officers, one of them pointed his taser at her. He did this even though she expressed a very calm demeanor and facial expression. When she was about five yards away, the officer shot his taser, striking Al-Bishara in the chest and sending her to the ground.
Dalton Daily Citizen News, which reviewed body camera footage from the incident, said that Al-Bishara was heard crying as the taser prongs hit her and she began “lightly sobbing and speaking in Arabic.” At this point, officers were handcuffing her and they brought her to her feet. Al-Bishara was then taken to the police station, where a mug shot was obtained and she was charged with obstruction of an officer and criminal trespassing.
Murray County Detention Center
She was taken to the Murray County Detention Center where Chatsworth Police Chief, Josh Etheridge, defended his officers’ use of force. “In my opinion, it was the lowest use of force we could have used to simply stop that threat at the time,” Etheridge told the Daily Citizen-News. “And I know everyone is going to say, ‘An 87-year-old woman? How big a threat can she be?’ She still had a knife. An 87-year-old woman with a knife still has the ability to hurt an officer.”
Al-Bishara’s Family is Upset
But, Al-Bishara’s family members disagreed completely. They believe the police, who responded by tasering Al-Bishara, were completely out of line and unnecessarily escalated the situation. Al-Bishara’s daughter-in-law arrived at the scene after the arrest and told officers that their mother-in-law has dementia and only speaks Arabic.
“She’s picked dandelions from there before, and she had a bag of dandelions and a kitchen knife,” one of Al-Bishara’s granddaughters, Martha Douhne, told Channel 9 News. “I think it just fully escalated.” Douhne said that the family was deferring questions about the case to their attorney but confirmed facts about Al-Bishara’s family and history to The Washington Post.
Immigrated to U.S. From Syria
Douhne said that Al-Bishara immigrated to the United States from Syria more than two decades ago and she is a naturalized citizen. She lives with her husband and other extended family members in Chatsworth, a city near the Tennessee border about 85 miles north of Atlanta. Douhne was also quick to dispute that the relative who told the officer that her grandmother that had dementia was wrong.
Getting the Charges Dropped
“That was something that was accidentally said in the heat of the moment,” Douhne said. “Grandma has no previous mental issues and has been and still is fully capable of living on her own with her husband.” Jeff Dean, an attorney for Al-Bishara’s family, is working on getting the charges against the elderly woman dropped. He said “we are evaluating what we’ll do as far as an unreasonable use of force case” against the police department.
An 87-Year-Old Behind Bars
Dean said, “The folks from the Boys and Girls Club, when they made their phone call to 911, clearly stated she was not a threat to anybody and told them she was gathering vegetation. Clearly, there was no threat.” Douhne told The Washington Post that her grandmother spent about two and a half hours in jail, then another two and half hours in the hospital to get her health checked.
Al-Bishara was okay physically but her head hurt trying to understand what had happened. “She is still repeating the incident over in her mind and telling us she didn’t mean for this to happen and apologizing that she didn’t want to bring this on us,” Douhne told the Daily Citizen-News. “She is having trouble sleeping and is stressed.”
A Neighbor Shares Her Thoughts
A neighbor said that Al-Bishara has lived in the area for 22 years and that she was shocked to learn what happened. “This woman don’t bother nobody or nothing,” said Elizabeth Usrey. “They keep their stuff clean and don’t bother anyone. I don’t really know what happened, but the woman wouldn’t hurt a fly. Using a Taser on someone that age is ridiculous.”
The Police Chief Speaks Out
Usrey explained that Al-Bishara and her husband enjoy walking around the neighborhood and when they harvest vegetables in their garden on their property, they share them with neighbors. “[The police] should have been more patient,” Usrey said. Police Chief, Josh Etheridge commented on the matter telling the Daily Citizen News that there will be a full investigation.
A Full Investigation?
“We handle the use of force issues internally, and an outside agency would be contacted if we thought a crime had been committed. If someone wanted to contact the GBI [Georgia Bureau of Investigation] — and we have been in contact with them to let them know what happened — because they think there was criminal wrongdoing, then we would welcome that. We haven’t requested them to come in. We simply don’t believe there was any criminal activity.”