Misunderstandings are commonplace in our everyday lives, and most of the time a breakdown in communication doesn’t have any real, lasting impact. Most of us just shrug our shoulders and move on after an instance of miscommunication… but what if a few mixed words could mean the difference between life and death?
This was the case for one Georgia woman, when simple misunderstanding with police escalated to a deadly level. Fearing for their own safety, the officers made a split-second decision — and it’ll haunt them for the rest of their days.
For 22 years, Martha Al-Bishara has lived alongside her husband in their Chatsworth, Georgia, home. A native of Syria, the 87-year-old continues to uphold many of the daily practices she learned while growing up in her home country.
Like her mother before her, Martha enjoys foraging for greens and vegetables to prepare in meals for her family. Oftentimes, Martha and her husband can be seen picking plants from the lush patches of forest around their neighborhood.
On one day in particular, Martha was hoping to pick some dandelions for dinner, a task that had become routine to her. Grabbing her trusty kitchen knife, Martha left her home and crossed the street to one of her usual foraging spots.
Conall / Flickr
Unlike the other public green spots, however, this patch of woods was owned by the Boys & Girls Club, a national nonprofit that funds after-school programs for young people. Martha had foraged here before, but this time she wasn’t alone.
A few yards off, a Boys & Girls Club employee named Tanner watched as the knife-wielding woman slowly made her way onto the property. Feeling somewhat threatened by her presence, Tanner called the police.
“This lady is walking on the bike trail, she has a knife and she won’t leave,” Tanner told the operator in a call placed at around 4:30 PM. “She told me she doesn’t speak English and keeps walking up the trail with a knife.”
Tanner continued: “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.”
When asked if Martha had come at him with the knife, Tanner replied: “No, she just brought the knife onto the property in her hand. She didn’t try to attack anybody or anything.”
Two officers along with the chief of the Chatsworth Police Department were dispatched to the scene. When they arrived, another Boys and Girls Club employee led them to the area where Martha was last spotted.
Georgia LawEnforcement Photos / Flickr
They were quick to find the 87-year-old, who was casually collecting dandelions along a dirt path. But when the officers issued a verbal command for her to stop foraging, Martha didn’t seem to understand. She just kept cutting.
At one point, the chief even tossed his own pocket knife on the ground and picked it up in an attempt to illustrate what the officers were trying to get her to do. Again, Martha just stared. That’s when they pulled out their stun guns.
“We kept telling her to drop the knife,” the police report detailing the incident recounted. “The female would look at us. Her demeanor was calm even seeing us with our [stun] guns out.”
It was then that Martha began approaching the officers, the knife still clutched in her hand. Seeing no other choice, one of the officers fired his taser, sending the elderly woman crumpling to the ground.
The officers quickly handcuffed Martha, who was both terrified and confused. She was then taken to the Chatsworth police station, where she was charged with obstruction of an officer and criminal trespassing.
Chatsworth Police Chief Josh Etheridge defended the decision. “In my opinion, it was the lowest use of force we could have used to simply stop that threat at the time,” he told the Daily Citizen-News.
Etheridge continued: “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.”
Martha’s family, however, had a different take on the matter. Not only did they believe the officers unnecessarily escalated the situation, but that their tasering of the elderly woman was completely out of line.
“[They] clearly stated she was not a threat to anybody and told them she was gathering vegetation,” said Jeff Dean, an attorney working on behalf of the family to get Martha’s charges dropped. “Clearly, there was no threat.”
Amy Way Photography
Martha fully recovered from the incident, but her family said the confrontation with the officers took more of a mental toll on her than a physical one. For Martha, the escalation from a normal day of picking flowers to one spent in a jail cell was something she just couldn’t wrap her head around.
“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,” her granddaughter, Martha Douhne, told the Daily Citizen-News. “She is having trouble sleeping and is stressed.”
News Channel 9
An internal investigation has been launched by the Chatsworth Police Department to look further into the incident, but as of now, no criminal wrongdoing has been established.
If the case between the Al-Bishara family and the CPD were to escalate, however, then the Georgia Bureau of Investigation would likely have to intervene.