Bodycam footage from a Chatsworth Police Department officer showing the use of a Taser on an 87-year-old woman has been released by the woman’s attorneys with a civil rights lawsuit against the city of Chatsworth expected.
Two videos — a shorter version showing the use of the Taser and the arrest of Martha Al-Bishara and a longer version that shows the use of the stun gun and family members arriving and trying to communicate with the woman — were posted on Tuesday on the Facebook page of the law firm Morris and Dean.
“... We have given the city an opportunity to resolve the situation without the necessity of filing a lawsuit,” the law firm wrote in posting the video. “Unfortunately, they declined to make her a meaningful offer. Therefore, we have no choice but to file suit to seek accountability for those responsible.”
Al-Bishara was 87 at the time of the incident, which happened on Aug. 10 of last year. She was charged with criminal trespass and obstruction of an officer after she went onto the Boys & Girls Club's property in Chatsworth. Police were called after Al-Bishara went into a portion of the lot across the street from her home with a kitchen knife.
Family members said Al-Bishara was cutting dandelions for a salad. The video footage shows police Chief Josh Etheridge taking a plastic bag filled with what looks like weeds from Al-Bishara’s hands after Officer Steven Marshall used his Taser, striking Al-Bishara in the breast and stomach.
The officer used the Taser on Al-Bishara, a Syrian native who speaks nominal English, according to family members, after she refused verbal commands to drop the knife.
The video posted to the Facebook page is the same video that Etheridge allowed the Daily Citizen-News to review three days after the incident. The video — taken from the body camera of a third responding officer — is from a distance, and what Al-Bishara is doing with the knife cannot be determined clearly.
At the time of the incident, Etheridge defended the use of the Taser.
"In my opinion, it was the lowest use of force we could have used to simply stop that threat at the time," he said. "And I know everyone is going to say, 'An 87-year-old woman? How big of a threat can she be?' She still had a knife."
When reached Wednesday, Etheridge declined to comment and referred questions to the city's insurance carrier. Messages left for a spokesman for Trident Public Risk Solutions were not immediately returned on Wednesday.
Attorney Jeffrey Dean said Al-Bishara’s family is ready to move forward with the civil rights lawsuit after a delay. He said Azar Al-Bishara, Martha Al-Bishara’s husband of 73 years, suffered through a lengthy illness and died last month at the age of 97.
Dean said he has been in contact with Trident Public Risk Solutions, a subsidiary of Argo Group Insurance Co., which specializes in representing public government entities such as municipalities and boards of education, according to its website. Dean said an offer of a settlement from Trident was not acceptable.
“A very nominal offer,” Dean said. “I asked the adjuster if there was anything I could tell him to convince him to make a meaningful offer and he said, ‘No.’ We have no choice if we want to have meaningful relief than to file a lawsuit.”
Dean said he will file the lawsuit within the next 60 days in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia in Rome.
Dean said the video was given to the firm by District Attorney Bert Poston. Media outlets, including the Daily Citizen-News, have filed requests with the district attorney’s office for the video under the Georgia Open Records Act. Since the criminal charges have not been dismissed, those requests have been denied. Messages left with the district attorney's office were not immediately returned on Wednesday.
Dean’s partner, Marcus Morris, is representing Al-Bishara should a criminal indictment be presented by the district attorney’s office to the grand jury.
“Her criminal charges are still pending,” Dean said. "We expect those to be dismissed, but they haven’t been dismissed yet. I know (Morris) has been in contact with Bert. And they may be meeting in the next week.”
When the Daily Citizen-News first reported on the use of the Taser on Al-Bishara, the report garnered national attention. Morris and Dean announced in December that it was representing Al-Bishara and was seeking a settlement with the city.
Dean said there has been tremendous interest in the video, which is why he said the firm released it.
“We had been getting a tremendous amount of follow-up from various media outlets, and several people had asked me for the video,” Dean said. “So rather than return 20 or 30 phone calls, we just decided to post it on our Facebook page.”
Should the lawsuit make it to trial, Dean said his firm has been in contact with experts who may be called to testify. One witness could be William M. Harmening, a 37-year law enforcement veteran and an adjunct professor of forensic psychology and criminology at Washington University in St. Louis. Dean provided a copy of an “abbreviated analysis” that Harmening wrote on the incident based on written police reports and the bodycam video.
Harmening wrote that the use of the Taser was “unreasonable and excessive under the circumstances.” He noted the manufacturer of the Taser's "warning that there are four populations of people who are at an elevated risk of injury or death from a Taser strike — pregnant women, small children, the elderly and those with impaired heart function. With these populations, the use of the Taser should be avoided at all costs." Among his qualifications, Harmening said he is certified by Axon Inc., the manufacturer of the Taser, in "Taser evidence recovery and analysis."
“There was nothing about Al-Bishara’s appearance or behavior that would have demonstrated a threat to the officers or anyone else,” Harmening wrote. “She was simply a very elderly woman who was cutting dandelions with a steak knife. In fact, given her obvious age and physical condition, it would have been quite impossible for Al-Bishara in this situation to even pose a threat to three well-trained and experienced police officers.”
"The manner in which the Taser was targeted at Al-Bishara's chest was also inappropriate, and given her age and physical condition, could be interpreted by a jury as lethal force," he wrote.