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A veteran with dementia got lost going shopping. He died months after an officer body-slammed him

When Carl Grant awoke from emergency surgery and couldn’t move, he apologized to family gathered around his hospital bed.

In the fog of dementia, the U.S. Marine Corps veteran thought he’d been paralyzed in the Vietnam War. The truth: It was February 2020, he was 68, and a police officer had wrecked the spinal cord in his neck by slamming him onto an emergency room floor.

Grant’s family decided not to correct him. He was already confused enough.

“We left it like that, we didn’t know how he’d react,” his sister, Kathy Jenkins, recalled.

The story of how Grant ended up paralyzed began that Super Bowl Sunday, when Grant drove off from his Georgia home to shop for groceries.

It was to be a quick trip, so he left his cellphone at home and the heater on. Along the way, Grant became disoriented and turned his Kia Optima onto Interstate 20, driving west into the fading light.

More than two hours later, he was in Birmingham, Alabama, using his keys in the dark to try to unlock the door to a stranger’s house. It was a one story brick home, just like his.

The owner called 911. Grant assured responding officers that this was home. They handcuffed Grant, but realized he wasn’t a burglar — he truly thought he lived there. One officer recognized signs of dementia. Back at the precinct, a sergeant would tell officers they should have called medics for an evaluation and notified a supervisor. Instead, police told Grant to move along.

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He did and, about an hour later and less than half a mile away, officers responding to a burglary call found Grant sitting in a porch chair. Again Grant insisted he was home, and could prove it with paperwork inside.

Grant stood up and turned toward the front door. Body-camera video shows Officer Vincent Larry telling Grant he couldn’t enter and then shoving him down the porch steps.

Grant was facedown on the ground as Larry and other officers struggled to handcuff him. As they did, Grant cried out, “Call the police!”

These officers also began to recognize signs of confusion — Grant couldn’t tell them the day of the week or year. A sergeant asked Larry if they should take Grant into protective custody. Larry continued with the arrest, saying Grant assaulted him. Larry would write in his report Grant struck him with a closed fist, though he later told internal police investigators the shove caused Grant to turn and punch as he fell.

Larry went with Grant to the University of Alabama at Birmingham Hospital to be treated for a forehead gash from the fall.

That took a few hours. Now it was 3 a.m. Grant stepped out of an exam room, the officer wrote in his report, and told Larry he was going to charge his cellphone – the one his mind didn’t grasp was nearly 200 miles away. Larry wrote that he told Grant to stay because they would soon be discharged, but Grant refused.

Hospital surveillance video shows Larry reach for Grant’s arm and flip him over in what the police investigation described as a “hip toss” not taught at the academy. Grant landed on his back. A nurse estimated his head bounced four inches off the floor. His body was limp.

Larry rolled Grant over to his stomach and handcuffed him. It was the third time he had been restrained in six hours.

Grant died almost six months later. The death certificate worksheet lists his paralysis as the cause, attributing it to “physical assault with body slam.”

Grant had been a proud Marine who enlisted at 18 in 1969, following the example of a favored uncle.

He settled in California after nearly a decade of active duty, continued to serve as a reservist, opened a trucking business, and met Ronda Hernandez, who would become his partner of 30 years.

By his early 60s, the more tired Grant got, the more confused he became. Doctors diagnosed him with early-onset dementia. He also had post-traumatic stress disorder and health issues from Agent Orange exposure during combat in Vietnam.

After the dementia diagnosis, Grant moved from California to Conyers, Georgia, to be near his brother and sister.

Hernandez watched Grant’s mind begin to falter. By 2019, he would sometimes get lost running errands or forget to turn off the television — but he still remembered family.

Grant and Hernandez used to sit outside their house for hours, stargazing and talking.

“Whether he remembered anything or remembered me, we’d still be right here next to each other. We’d be sitting on the porch. He’d be smoking his pipe,” she said. “I could still tuck him into bed, give him a kiss, say ‘I love you.’ I can’t do that now.”

Grant’s death was among more than 1,000 across the United States that an investigation led by The Associated Press documented after police used tactics like the hip toss that, unlike guns, are meant to stop people without killing them.

More than 20 of those who died in these encounters, which also included weapons such as Tasers, were 65 or older. Many others were, like Grant, vulnerable due to a crisis brought on by their physical or mental health, or due to drug use.

The Birmingham Police Department’s investigation concluded Officer Larry used excessive force at the hospital. The punishment: a 15-day suspension and retraining.

A civil lawsuit filed by Grant’s brother in 2022 focuses on the need for better training for first responders on how to recognize and respond to vulnerable people. Birmingham attorneys Richard Rice and Johnathan Austin are representing Grant’s brother, William Jenkins.

“If you can’t stand up and say that what happened to Carl Grant was wrong, it just shows how much ground we have to cover to be able to really have a conversation about police accountability,” Rice said.

A judge dismissed the case without addressing the allegations of excessive force. The city and the officer had argued they were not given notice that a lawsuit would be filed before a legal deadline. Jenkins’ lawyers are appealing and the appeals court has ordered the parties to mediate.

Larry was no longer employed by the city as of September, the mayor’s office said. He’s now working as a part-time police officer in the suburbs outside Birmingham. Graysville Police Chief McKinsley Marbury said his department opted to give Larry a second chance and he’s doing great.

“You always keep what someone does in the back of your head,” Marbury said. He added: “There are so many things that we ask the Lord to forgive us for, that we probably are not worthy of forgiveness for. But He does. And if He can do it for us, we, as people, should be able to do it for someone else.”

In court paperwork, Larry denied he committed an unprovoked assault on Grant at the hospital. His attorney declined to make him available for an interview.

Grant was Black. Larry is too. They were in a city central to the Civil Rights Movement.

Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin and Police Chief Scott Thurmond have spoken out about police brutality elsewhere. Neither agreed to talk about this case.

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Editor’s note: This story is based on a 103-page report from the Birmingham Police Department; court files from the civil lawsuit filed by Grant’s brother; Grant’s military and medical records; police body-camera footage; hospital surveillance video; and interviews with Grant’s partner, siblings, the lawyers for his estate and the Graysville, Alabama police chief.

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McDermott reported from Providence, Rhode Island. Associated Press writers Jeff Martin in Atlanta and Holbrook Mohr in Jackson, Mississippi, contributed to this report.

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This story is part of an ongoing investigation led by The Associated Press in collaboration with the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism programs and FRONTLINE (PBS). The investigation includes the Lethal Restraint interactive story, database and the documentary, “Documenting Police Use Of Force,” premiering April 30 on PBS.

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The Associated Press receives support from the Public Welfare Foundation for reporting focused on criminal justice. This story also was supported by Columbia University’s Ira A. Lipman Center for Journalism and Civil and Human Rights in conjunction with Arnold Ventures. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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Contact AP’s global investigative team at [email protected] or https://www.ap.org/tips/

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