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Advocates push for medical civil rights

Proposed bill requires police to call for medical care upon first sign of distress

Avery Bleichfeld
Advocates push for medical civil rights
Under a bill before the Massachusetts Legislature, law enforcement officers would be required to immediately request emergency medical services for any person who appears to need medical assistance or says they do.

Following the death of Freddie Gray in police custody in Baltimore eight years ago, Leonore Dluhy and her physician father, Dr. Robert G. Dluhy, began to wonder what right to health care people have when they encounter police officers. Discussions with legal experts led them to conclude that no legal right to request medical care while in contact with the police exists anywhere in the country.

“If you’re pulled over and it’s a traffic stop, and you have a medical emergency, it shouldn’t be a negotiation with the officer if you are stating that you’re in a medical crisis,” Dluhy said “It doesn’t help the person, the civilian, and it certainly doesn’t help the officer either.”

Dluhy directs the Medical Civil Rights Initiative formed in 2019, which drafted a bill pending before the Massachusetts Legislature designed to address the situation.

Under the bill, law enforcement officers would be required to immediately request emergency medical services for any person who appears to need medical assistance or says they do.

Dluhy, whose organization is also working to compile data on the need for access to health care during contact with the police, points to not only the nationally recognizable cases of death and injury resulting from excessive force in police custody, but also instances where police failed to get medical support for someone who was already experiencing a health emergency.

“We need to recognize that there’s many different types of medical emergencies that arise during police contact, for many different reasons,” she said. “Regardless of the cause of the medical crisis or when it began, all we need are these statutory parameters, that a person has this right to either request medical care, or that the officer has a duty to immediately summon care.”

Sen. Lydia Edwards PHOTO: BANNER FILE

State Sen. Lydia Edwards, who represents a district based in East Boston and Charlestown, said she is waiting until the bill receives a hearing to decide whether she supports it, but said because there is no legal obligation for police to summon medical assistance, she thinks the issue merits some sort of legislation.

“I do think that there needs to be some sort of medical understanding and obligation and training,” Edwards said, “That once you have a person in custody, they’re no longer your enemy, they’re no longer a threat, and you letting them die isn’t an option.”

The bill has received support from both impacted families and policing leaders, and policing leaders in Massachusetts contributed to editing the bill, Dluhy said.

“I’ve found that when people come at this bill, they begin with the assumption about where people stand on the issues,” Dluhy said. “My father’s and my intention was to protect both civilians and officers and to prevent avoidable deaths.”

The bill, currently before the Joint Judiciary Committee, contains no explicit enforcement mechanism for situations where law enforcement officers fail to get medical support when they encounter a health emergency.

Sen. James Eldridge of Acton, who chairs that committee, said he sees the bill as following a larger trend of creating a rule without explicit guidelines to enforce it.

“Often what’s happening, for better or worse, is a focus on changing these laws [and] that it will therefore have the influence of police following this law, but not necessarily with the teeth of enforcement,” Eldridge said.

Christopher Robertson, a professor at Boston University School of Law who is not associated with the bill, said having an established law requiring police get medical support could allow courts to find exceptions to qualified immunity, which prevents officers from being sued as individuals. But he said there could be challenges getting cases in front of a court.

“Ultimately, this ends up becoming a really roundabout and inconsistent way to get police officers to do something,” Robertson said. “I remain sort of skeptical that this would make much difference, but it’s at least pointing in the right direction.”

Edwards said she also had questions about the bill’s standard for law enforcement officers recognizing medical need. Under the bill, officers should recognize medical conditions identifiable to a “prudent layperson who possesses an average knowledge of health and medicine.”

Robertson said that description makes sure police aren’t held to the same standard a doctor or medical expert would be.

“When it comes to medicine, they’re merely laypersons, and so we’re not going to expect them to know things that lay persons wouldn’t know,” he said.

Robertson said some laws create rules — specific guidelines prescribing exact actions like speed limits for drivers — while others, like this one, create standards outlining more general guidelines around behavior.

“In a situation like this, unless you’re going to have a 1,000-page manual with all the different ways someone can present with an emergency medical condition, that’s not really a practical way to regulate in this space, because situations will vary so much that you are going to just have to be a reasonably prudent layperson,” Robertson said.

Massachusetts Legislature, medical civil rights