Police shoot 87-year-old woman with stun gun in Chatsworth, Georgia [audio]

Martha Al-Bishara
Taser incident 911 call

A Chatsworth, Georgia, police officer shocked an 87-year-old woman with a stun gun last week after she refused to drop a steak knife. She had been cutting leaves from dandelions to make dinner.

Martha Al-Bishara, an immigrant from Syria who speaks Arabic, wandered across the street from her home to a local Boys & Girls Club, where she tried to pick out the leaves from a wooded lot Friday afternoon. After an employee of the center called 911, officers found her at the bottom of a hill, near the back of the Boys & Girl's Club's property line at 502 W. Chestnut St.

Officer Steven Marshall, who deployed the Taser, wrote in his report that Al-Bishara ignored several orders to drop the knife before walking toward him. The police department charged Al-Bishara with criminal trespass and obstructing an officer. But some of her family members believe Marshall should have resolved the problem without violence.

"I just don't understand how the officer couldn't have disarmed her in a better way," said Martha Douhne, Al-Bishara's granddaughter. "It's hard for her to even walk and push herself up the stairs."

Douhne said her grandmother wanted the dandelion leaves to add to her dinner, but the grocery store did not have any and her own crop has not grown this year. The employees of the Boys & Girls Club have told her not to cut any from their lot in the past, according to an incident report, but she still crossed the street to get some.

An employee called 911 around 4:30 p.m. and told a dispatcher that Al-Bishara does not appear to speak English. He added that the woman was near a bicycle trail, but no children were around.

"She's old," he said. "She can't get around too well. She didn't try to attack anybody or anything."

When Marshall arrived with Chief Josh Etheridge and another officer, according to an incident report, they found her near the chain-link fence at the property line. They drew their guns. Al-Bishara bent down, chopped a weed and dropped her ingredient into a white Walmart bag. She began to walk away, but Marshall and Etheridge shouted for her to drop her knife. She turned around, according to the incident report, but she didn't say anything.

"Her demeanor was calm even seeing us with our guns out," Marshall wrote.

She began walking away again, and Etheridge asked Marshall if he had his Taser. Marshall drew his weapon. He moved closer to Al-Bishara, and she stopped to look at the officers again. They shouted for her to drop her knife. She didn't.

Marshall gestured with his hands, trying to appear as if he was throwing a knife on the ground. Etheridge pulled a pocket knife out and dropped it. Marshall wrote that Al-Bishara then walked toward him. He shouted that he was going to use his weapon, according to the report. She was about 15 feet away. Marshall deployed his stun gun, hitting her in the chest and upper stomach.

"The female started grunting and drew both of her hands toward her chest," Marshall later wrote.

"It's just a very unfortunate situation that no one wanted to be placed in," Etheridge told the Times Free Press on Tuesday.

Soon after, Douhne arrived with her mother. They had not known about the police confrontation and instead were doing their regular checkup on Al-Bishara and her husband. Douhne said Al-Bishara was confused and apologized several times. She told her granddaughter she thought she had been shot with a gun. She held her chest, looking for blood and shouted her husband's name.

After getting booked in and out of jail Friday night, Al-Bishara's family took her to a hospital to make sure she didn't suffer a heart attack. Douhne said doctors' tests came back OK. She said her grandmother has explained she didn't understand what was going on with police when they arrived.

"It was a big, big confusion and misunderstanding that escalated a bit too quickly," Douhne said.

She criticized officers for not calling an ambulance after hitting her with the stun gun. Etheridge said officers are trained to remove the prongs from a person's body after shooting the weapon. That's what they did. They stayed with her until she was booked in the jail.

"At no time did she show signs to indicate that she was in medical distress," he wrote in an email.

Al-Bishara and her husband immigrated to the United States legally from Syria about 22 years ago. They spent most of their lives working a farm but moved here to be closer to family. Al-Bishara's husband also needed to undergo heart bypass surgery, Douhne said.

They have not had any issues with law enforcement since coming here, but they keep a sheet inside their home that explains their story in English. It includes phone numbers for family members in case somebody needs to reach them.

Solomon Douhne, Al-Bishara's great nephew, was a patrol officer for Dalton police for three years and was allowed to accompany her as she was booked in and out of the Murray County Jail. He is friends with Etheridge and believes he runs a solid department. He said Etheridge allowed him to review the body camera footage of the third officer on scene Friday, about 15-20 yards away.

He believes Marshall should have been more patient before deploying the stun gun.

"There was no immediate threat," Solomon Douhne said. "There was no immediate danger. It's not like this 87-year-old woman is going to overpower these guys with a knife. She had on a dress."

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.