This month, Pro Bono columnist Steve Wirth, Esq., EMT-P, responds to feedback on his article “Dealing with Police Misconduct” from the July issue. Both letters were edited for space.
I’ve been an EMT since 1982, a career paramedic since 1995, then a career police officer in a relatively busy municipal police department in suburban Philadelphia since 2001, where I continue to work as a part-time paramedic.
I read your article, and while I think I understand your underlying premise, which I agree with, I also have concerns about it. True misconduct and deliberate, vindictive mistreatment for any reason is wrong and needs to be addressed. This is without question, and it is, I hope, the point you were trying to make. My concern arises from the section of the article that states, “Second, alleged misconduct such as what may appear to be excessive use of force by the police or abusive treatment must be reported.” The very fact you use the word “appear” is very telling, and leads to my main point: It’s very hard to know what’s actually going on in a violent and fluid situation merely from what it appears to be.
When I moved from EMS to law enforcement, I thought I had a pretty good grasp of what being a cop was all about. After all, I’d worked very closely with police for many years while in EMS.
I was wrong. Very wrong. Being a police officer is a job that truly has to be experienced firsthand to fully understand it. You may think you know what’s going on when you see police work, especially when you work closely with them like EMS providers do, but you don’t really know. There’s a significant difference between controlling a combative person who’s acting that way as the result of an injury or medical condition, and has no nefarious intent, and defending yourself from a violent criminal who’s determined to not go to prison even if it means killing you. Not many people want to harm EMS providers—even criminals. Many people want to harm or kill police officers just because they’re officers. The level and type of resistance offered by a subject fighting for their life isn’t even in the same ballpark as a combative patient.
I can speak with the authority of experience that an EMS provider has absolutely no idea what a police officer is subject to, and what a physical altercation in the police world entails. I take strong exception to telling an EMS provider to judge the actions of a police officer. This would be no different from a police officer second-guessing the medical decisions of an EMS provider and then reporting them for it. In fact, I’ve actually seen this happen. I’ve had officers from my department ask me about actions taken by EMS providers that they thought were inappropriate, because they, the officers, didn’t have the medical and hands-on EMS experience to understand what they were seeing. Once I explained to them why certain things were done in a certain manner, they understood.
In closing, I submit that the position taken in the article might need to be refined a little, or at least explained a little deeper. Thank you for your consideration.
Mark Gindhart Via email
AUTHOR STEVE WIRTH, ESQ., EMT-P, RESPONDS:
Thanks for the thoughtful comments—it’s nice to get some feedback and to stimulate discussion on important topics.
I’ve been a certified paramedic since 1979, and have functioned as a paramedic or EMT for over 40 years now. I’ve been on a lot of calls over the years and a few where I saw lack of action or improper patient assessment and care by EMS providers where there were multiple officers and an arrest had taken place. I agree that medics and EMTs shouldn’t “judge” the actions of police officers on scene—but EMS providers do have a professional and ethical responsibility to assert themselves when they see things being done that could harm the person being placed in custody. From the videos I saw of the Eric Garner incident, the EMS providers on scene didn’t do that. That was the point I was trying to make: As the trained medical professionals on the scene, regardless how chaotic or difficult, we simply can’t sit back and say or do nothing when we know we should.
I didn’t intend to convey the impression that EMS professionals should formally “report” every action by police that “appears” to be improper. Perhaps I should have explained that statement further. As you point out, there’s a lot going on with an arrest that we don’t know about, like the past history of the person being placed under arrest and prior threatening actions that person may have made toward police. But when common sense tells us something just doesn’t look right, it’s better to deal with these concerns promptly between the agencies before a similar incident the next time becomes that day’s hot YouTube video on the nightly news.
I’ve found that talking to the officers on scene and asking them why they took the actions they did will resolve most concerns. I would hope that police officers, too, would question an EMS professional when that officer observed what appeared to be improper EMS care—like walking a patient with shortness of breath down six flights of stairs to avoid lugging a stretcher and equipment into the building. And if the other professionals on scene don’t take well to those questions by other agency personnel on the scene and get defensive, well, then maybe a more formal report is needed.
My point to EMS providers is this: Don’t sit on your laurels. Take the initiative to engage in communication with the police. Assert yourself to get access to the detained person when the situation is under control. In other words, don’t be lazy or overly deferential to others when it’s your responsibility for patient care.
We all have to be cognizant of the fact that we must at all times be transparent in what we do as police, fire and EMS professionals. We should assume our actions are being recorded by someone with a smartphone. That’s a good thing, in my view, as it helps us behave as if we’re going to be viewed by thousands of people on social media within minutes.
The mark of a true professional is that we always question our own actions, and we welcome that same questioning by others—that’s because providing service to the public is a collaborative process, and as professionals we must seek every opportunity for continual improvement without getting defensive, even when others without our training, knowledge or experience question our actions.