My old boss, Lowell Weicker, former US Senator and Governor of Connecticut, when questioned about Congress being corrupt, used to say that Congress was representative of our democracy. If there were bad apples in Congress, they were likely the same portion of bad apples in every other profession and in the country as a whole.
I feel badly for most police officers right now. Most have dedicated themselves to making their communities better. They put up with amazing amounts of s—t everyday, and most maintain their calm. I have seen them exercise incredible patience and also show incredible kindness. But like in every profession there are bad apples who tarnish it for everyone else. It seems everyday I turn on the TV there is another example of police bad behavior. Cops killing people, cops pushing down old people. Cops lying. Cops taking naps while neighborhoods are being looted. It is hard to not instinctively judge all officers by what is shown.
I remember a number of years ago, there was a news story about an EMT in Springfield, Massachusetts punching a patient . He was caught on camera, They showed him leaning over the patient and then winding up and punching him. I don’t know whether the patient said something to him or spit on him, but the EMT punched him and there was no excuse for it. He got fired. I remember thinking how bad it made all of us in EMS look. The guy worked in another division so I didn’t know him and didn’t know if it was aberrant behavior for him or his modis operandi. I hope it was the former.
I felt the same when an EMT in our state was arrested and admitted sexually molesting an unconscious patient. Shameful.
No matter what line of work you do, there has to be a way to get the bad apples out, and with particular regard to law enforcement where one individual can hold such great power over another, there need to be ways for good cops to out bad cops without fearing for their own jobs.
I am hopeful that all that is happening in America today will make it easier for people in all walks of life to speak out more easily and without fear of retribution when they witness abuse or racism.
When I took my EMT class in 1989, we had a guest speaker from the local ambulance service who came in all done up in pressed uniform and shiny brass. He told us what it was like working on Saturday nights in the city with the spicks, the blacks, and the junkies. We laughed nervously and I wondered what I might be getting into. When I first started on the streets, a few of the EMTs I worked with carried night sticks and could be a bit rough with patients. There was a lot of grabbing people by the shoulder and saying “Come on buddy, let’s go!” if a patient we had been called for was intoxicated or high and didn’t want to go to the hospital. Back then the fire department didn’t respond with us, and the police only rarely responded. Some EMTs prided themselves on their bullet-proof vests, and their self-defense/take down moves. I witnessed a paramedic one evening wrestle a combative diabetic to the ground as if he were in the state championship match. I didn’t think it was necessary. It wasn’t self-defense, it was aggressive machismo.
Over the years, I have noticed that new people in any line of work tend to follow the culture of what they see around them. Again, many years ago when things were different, one EMT I knew, beat up a drunk and then took pictures of it, and showed them to people in his paramedic class. He was looking for affirmation, Instead, he was fired. Another EMT tried to hold a pillow over a spitting patient’s face in the ED triage line. He was reported and fired. Gone, just like that. We had a chief paramedic at the time who was willing to stand up and hold people to a standard. In the battle between good and evil, good managed to weed out the bad and the culture changed.
I remember one night I was outside the Hartford Civic Center when a concert was going on and many of the band’s followers were mobbing the streets. One kid was tripping on something and fighting everyone. I was called to assist a BLS crew who was having trouble containing the patient. I got in the back of the ambulance and was working on calming him down when a crew from another division(up for the standby) burst into our ambulance and one of the crew members tried to wrestle the patient and tie up him in a very safe unsafe position. I stopped it and kicked the other medic out of the ambulance and told him we didn’t treat patients like that in our city. He was pissed at me thinking here I was scorning him and he, the hero, had come to help. That’s not help. But that was probably how he was taught and it was acceptable, even laudable, in the division where he worked.
I went down to Mississippi in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and one day we got called for a woman out of control. It was a skinny black woman who they said was on crack. She was screaming “It’s a lie!. It’s a lie!, I didn’t kill myself!” My plan was to sedate her. The fire department before I could say anything, threw her face down on the stretcher and placed a long board on top of her to hold her down. It evidently was common practice there. They couldn’t believe I announced I was going to sedate her and when I got to the ED the doctor there questioned my practice. In the emergency situation of Katrina out-of-state emergency providers were allowed to operate under our home state protocols, and in Connecticut I was allowed to sedate out of control patients without a doctor’s order, something not done in Mississippi at the time.
The guys, who sandwiched the woman, were not bad people, they were just following what they had been taught and what they had seen done by others. One of them later said he wished that they could just sedate people like that. It seemed more humane.
Nowadays when we are called for a shooting, an assault or even an emotionally disturbed patient, we are often told to stage for police. We don’t go in until the scene is safe. I frequently come upon officers holding people down. Most of the time the officers are very professional and respectful. Sometimes, the officer lets a patient’s comments or movements get him riled up as if it is an affront to his manhood and he responds inappropriately to “show who is boss.” If he is a junior officer, he is usually warned to calm down. The problem is when a senior officer is out-of-line, it is difficult for a junior one to speak up. I try to be a peacemaker. I ask the police to keep holding a fighting person down but not to agitate them and then I sedate them, and then we wait. It works so much better than tying them to the stretcher and fighting with them all the way to the hospital with a police escort.
I would like to think that if anyone who works at our ambulance service saw a coworker act out-of-line, they would report it, and it would be investigated fairly with no retribution for the complainant. I would hope that more of us will speak up if or when we see acts of aggression by police officers.
But I still have to go back to what my old boss said about the bad apples. They are few and they are in all walks. The police are not evil. A few of them are, and they are the ones who we need to focus on. And we need to focus on systemic changes that prevent them from damaging others. Banning choke holds. Preventing the officer who chased another down from being the first one to lay their hands on the person. Very important, as the emotion and adrenaline of the chase can often lead to bad decisions. Citizen review boards. Whistleblower protections. Body cameras. Increased training.
I worked yesterday and interacted several times with the police.
Here’s what I saw:
A minor motor vehicle accident. The driver of one car and the driver and passenger in the other car were shouting and screaming at each other and a crowd of people who had witnessed it were all taking sides and screaming. In the midst of this chaos, three police officers did their best to find out what happened, if anyone was hurt and to try to keep order. People were yelling at them, ignoring them. Screaming and shouting with nobody wearing masks, and the officers all kept their cool and got their job done, and looking at their eyes, I could see the toll the work takes. I imagine them as I often do myself, just thinking, my goddess, this world is crazy. People don’t act normally in the street. Sometimes police and first responders have to disassociate in order to get their jobs done. They don’t hear the names they are called, they don’t respond to the spittle in the air. They don’t react when someone ignores their orders to be quiet and go stand over there by the telephone pole the first, second and third time. They just keep calm and gradually, get things settled.
A violent psych throwing things and yelling at people on the street. By the time I arrive everything is under control. The officers talk calmly with the woman who has been drinking and has stopped taking her psych meds. By now she is smiling and agrees to go to the hospital to be evaluated. If these officers didn’t receive training in mental health care, they learned it in the street and they are good at it.
An opioid overdose. A young man in a spare apartment with a needle still in his arm, hours dead. The officers are somber, respectful. I give them the information on the time on my presumption of the death. They are left to deal with the grief of family members and friends who are gathering. This is something they do every day.
There is a saying that you never talk religion or politics at work. Yesterday when I went in, I saw one of my old partners, who like me, is of the liberal bent, in a line of work dominated by conservatives. I talked with him to get his thoughts on what is happening in our world today, and I confessed the struggles I feel to come to a truth. While he is more to the left than I am, I do respect his opinions. But I wasn’t just interested in his thoughts on the questions I asked, (Do you assume when we are called to evaluate a man in handcuffs that the prisoner is guilty of a crime? Do you think minority EMTs get a fair shake at our company? Are all white people the problem or is racism the problem? What do you think of the terms White Privilege and Defund the Police? I was also interested in observing the reaction of others in the crew room to our conversation.
I got a sense that people (taken from things they chimed in to our discussion and to expressions that other people made) don’t like wide categorizations. People are against injustice, people are against racism, but blindly lumping everyone together (all whites, all police) plays into the hands of Donald Trump. Four years ago, I saw it in the people I worked with. They felt forgotten by the Democrats. They see rich people getting richer and poor people getting welfare and they work two and three jobs and can’t pay their bills. They work in the medical field, taking care of others, but when they get sick, they go into debt and their fellow employees have to put up a big glass jar by the operations window to solicit donations for them from their coworkers to help with their struggles to get by. They wanted someone to stand recognize them. Not that they are happy with what they got, but they don’t see great alternatives.
When I came home from work yesterday and stripped my contaminated uniform off and tossed it into the hot washer, and showered all the city off my skin, and finally settled onto the couch to talk to my family, when I tried to share my thoughts of the world with one of my daughters, we ended up in a fight about white people and police (They are the problem! She declared) that caused her to leave the room, and it made me remember how when I was young I thought my parents were responsible for all the social ills in the world.
I want a better America, I want an end to racism. I support Black Lives Matter. I believe wholeheartedly in affirmative action. I think we need a vast investment in education, particularly in our inner cities. I want to reform our system of policing. I want to see an end to violence. I want to end the war on drugs. I want affordable health care for all. (And I’ll support higher taxes to make the world a better place). I want substance users to be treated with compassion and not stigmatized. I want a coordinated response to the COVID epidemic. And I want a mature adult in the White House who will bring us together and not divide us.
We have to be in this together, rich and poor, white and black (and all the colors of the rainbow), young and old, liberal and conservative, police and nonpolice. Let us come together and let us not demonize anyone.
The left shouldn’t make the same mistakes the right has.
Let’s live up to our promise as a nation that all people are created equal.
We are all in this together.
Power to the people!
Peace, love and respect to all!