Administration and Leadership, Columns

Pro Bono: Dealing with Police Misconduct

Issue 7 and Volume 40.

There has been much in the news lately about police misconduct in the wake of the Ferguson, Mo., incident and others, including the “choke hold” of Eric Garner by police officers in New York City last July. Emotional reactions flare as numerous videos appear on the Internet showing this purported misconduct. Garner could be heard repeatedly saying “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe” as he slipped into unconsciousness as officers were on top of him after being pushed face down on the sidewalk.

EMS providers on the scene were criticized in that case and several were suspended pending investigation for allegedly not taking appropriate action to assist Garner. Arriving medics could be seen on video with no medical equipment near Garner, standing back away from the officers and Garner, seemingly taking few–if any–steps to intervene. It was also reported that an EMS provider could be overheard saying, “Oh, he can’t walk to the bus?” upon approaching the scene.

As EMS professionals, we’ll be involved in these difficult situations as police and EMS are frequently both called to respond. The question is, what should EMS providers do when they observe what appears to be police misconduct, or situations where a citizen (including suspects) may be harmed by police interventions such as Tasers or handcuffs?

First and foremost, EMS providers need to assess the situation and take appropriate action. We must remember that we’re the medical professionals on scene who can assess the medical condition of the patient–we aren’t there as police officers. We must be assertive when we see a citizen in distress while in custody, or when we observe police officers engaged in actions that could be harmful to that citizen’s health.

In many instances, police officers don’t have the training to recognize when a citizen’s medical condition is deteriorating. We must have the gumption to stand up and say, “Hey! We need to check him out, he’s saying he can’t breathe.” Unfortunately, it’s easy to sit back and watch and not do what should be done. EMS providers have a professional responsibility to be an advocate for the patient regardless of their station in life–including when the patient is a criminal suspect being restrained or placed under arrest. Medical care, including EMS care, is all about accountability. We must remember that not only are we accountable for our actions, we are also accountable for our inactions as well–especially when we fail to do something to protect the life of another human being .

Second, alleged misconduct such as what may appear to be excessive use of force by the police or abusive treatment must be reported. In EMS we work closely with our police departments, and we need to maintain a good relationship. But maintaining a good relationship doesn’t mean we look the other way or ignore the situation when we see possible mistreatment of another human being by someone else.

Every EMS agency should have a policy on reporting the alleged misconduct of others–including a method for those reports to be anonymous. The policy should encourage, not stifle, the reporting of possible misconduct. And there should be a clear anti-retaliation provision in the policy that protects the EMS provider from an adverse employment action when that provider makes a good faith report of alleged misconduct of others. This policy should apply to the reporting of suspected misconduct not just by police officers, but other EMS providers from within the EMS agency as well.

There’s simply no excuse for treating any citizen in a manner that’s inhumane or that we know may lead to improper harm to that person. Certainly, use of force to subdue a suspect may be necessary, but that force should never be excessive.

Of course, recent examples of police misconduct are the exception and not the rule. The vast majority of police officers treat others, including criminal suspects, in a professional and dignified manner. Burnout and job stress most likely play a key role in these cases where police appear to step over the line of decency. As EMS providers, we can’t let these negative influences affect how we treat our patients. A healthy diet, regular exercise, and participation in stress management programs can help us stay out of the “negative attitude” trap that can influence how we treat others, or in how we handle ourselves when we are faced with others mistreating another person.

This month’s Pro Bono was written by Steve Wirth, Esq., EMT-P, an attorney and founding partner of Page, Wolfberg & Wirth, the National EMS Industry Law Firm. Visit the firm’s website at www.pwwemslaw.com or find them on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn.