When Martha Al-Bishara went on a walk on a recent Friday near her home in northern Georgia, she was on a quest for dandelions. What she didn’t know was the stroll would end in her getting stunned by a Taser and arrested by police officers.
The 87-year-old woman often ventured outside — with a kitchen knife and a plastic bag in hand — to cut and collect the plants for cooking, her family said. She was doing just that the afternoon of Aug. 10 when she crossed the street from her home in Chatsworth, Ga., and arrived at a partially fenced lot belonging to a branch of the Boys and Girls Club. There, she began gathering the plants she wanted.
Someone on the property, however, called 911 to report a woman in a blue dress and a brown headscarf on their site.
“She told me she doesn’t speak English, and she’s walking up our bike trail with a knife towards me,” a man said in a 911 call obtained by WRCB News. “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. She has a bag, too.”
The 911 caller added that the woman “didn’t try to attack anybody or anything."
Soon afterward, at about 4:30 p.m., two officers and the chief of the Chatsworth Police Department arrived at the scene, according to a police report. There, a Boys and Girls Club staff member escorted them to the back of the property, where they spotted Al-Bishara standing on a hill, still holding a “a white plastic bag in her left hand and a steak knife in her right hand.”
It was unclear whether the officers realized Al-Bishara did not speak English, but, according to police, the woman did not respond to multiple verbal requests to put down her knife. Instead, she reportedly 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 stated. “We kept telling her to drop the knife. The female would look at us. Her demeanor was calm even seeing us with our guns out.”
The Chatsworth police chief at one point 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. When Al-Bishara still didn’t respond and began walking down the hill toward the police, one of the officers turned on his Taser and pointed it at the woman, the report said.
When she was about five yards away, with the same “calm” demeanor and facial expression, the officer shot his Taser, striking Al-Bishara in the chest and sending her to the ground, the report said.
The Dalton Daily Citizen-News, which reviewed body camera footage from the incident, said that Al-Bishara could be heard crying out as the Taser prongs hit her and that she was still “lightly sobbing and speaking in Arabic” after officers handcuffed her and brought her to her feet.
Al-Bishara was charged with obstruction of an officer and criminal trespassing, then taken to the Murray County Detention Center, according to police records.
Chatsworth Police Chief Josh Etheridge, who was at the scene, defended his officers' use of force earlier this week.
“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 members disagree and say the police, who responded with guns drawn, unnecessarily escalated the situation. One family member, Al-Bishara’s daughter-in-law, arrived at the scene shortly after the arrest and told officers Al-Bishara has dementia and speaks only Arabic, the police report stated.
“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.”
Neither Etheridge nor the Boys and Girls Club of Murray County responded to requests for comment Friday. Douhne said 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.
Her grandmother had immigrated to the United States from Syria more than two decades ago and is a naturalized citizen, Douhne said. Al-Bishara lives with her husband and other extended family members in Chatsworth, a city near the Tennessee border about 85 miles north of Atlanta.
Douhne disputed the relative who told police her grandmother had dementia.
“That was something that was accidentally said in the heat of the moment,” Doughne said in an email. “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, said they are working to get the charges against the elderly woman dropped and are “evaluating what we’ll do as far as an unreasonable use of force case” against the police department.
“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,” Dean said. “Clearly, there was no threat.”
Douhne told The Post her grandmother spent about two and a half hours in jail, then another two and a half hours at the hospital to get her health checked. She was okay physically but seemed to still be struggling with the incident in her head.
“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 Monday. “She is having trouble sleeping and is stressed.”
Al-Bishara’s great-nephew, Solomon Douhne, didn’t mince words in an interview with the same newspaper.
“If anything, [Al-Bishara] was confused and didn’t know what was going on,” said Douhne, a former police officer in a neighboring department. “It was a ridiculous turn of events. If three police officers couldn’t handle an 87-year-old woman, you might want to reconsider hanging up your badge.”