Should law enforcement officers have the same duty to act as EMTs?

An EMT’s perspective on the legal and civilian expectations for cops to render aid to persons in police custody


By Daniel Berger

Starting with the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., there have been a string of high profile civilian deaths while in police custody. I am not a police officer and I don’t know whether or not excessive force was used. My purpose is to examine whether police officers should have the same duty to act and render medical aid as other public safety responders.

Medical training requirements vary widely

Requirements for first aid and CPR training for police officers varies widely, ranging from CPR/AED use, basic first aid, tactical medicine, emergency medical responder (EMR), or even none at all. In California, all officers are required to take and maintain at minimum basic first aid and CPR, and California Highway Patrol Officers take an EMR course in their academy.

However, even in cases where the police officers have some medical training, we sometimes see on the news officers who seem unwilling to provide medical aid, especially when it is for somebody who was previously a combatant.

With more departments issuing their officers equipment like AEDs and naloxone kits, it is becoming increasingly important that officers are not just given the tools they need, but encouraged to use them. 

Reasons for medical care reluctance

Perhaps police officers are worried about catching a disease or exposing themselves to liability. Therefore, they would rather wait for EMS than get involved in care. However, first aid covers universal precautions, and every day bystanders give first aid without getting sick. While the risk of exposure or liability concern is valid, if a department has given their officers medical training one would expect their department to stand by them in the event of a lawsuit.

Another possibility might be concerns about the scene not being safe for officers to render aid. As an EMT, our first concern is also scene safety, and it is perfectly understandable for officers not to render aid if they feel they are at risk.

No clear legal requirement to act

Both the Geneva Convention and U.S. Lieber Code require our military to care for captured enemy soldiers. While law enforcement officers are not subjected to the Geneva Convention, the U.N. Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officers requires officers to "take immediate action to secure medical attention whenever required." 

If the officer has the training to render aid, could this be interpreted as requiring them to provide it? While it is not their primary job, when law enforcement officers are required to be trained in first aid, why should the duty to act associated with their badge be any different than it is for EMS providers and firefighters?

Many times, especially with trauma, no amount of aid provided in the field will save the victim. However, if the wound is in an extremity, quick bleeding control during the time an officer is waiting for EMS to arrive could be the difference between life and death. Even when the victim is mortally wounded, rendering aid may do more than helping the victim.

Public expects officers to act

In the recent shooting death of Walter Scott, while police eventually did render first aid, the video of the shooting and its aftermath show officers next to the downed suspect for over two minutes without rendering aid. Although only one officer shot, the public’s anger was aimed at the entire department.

In the case of Eric Garner, the medical examiner attributed his cause of death in part to "the compression of [Garner''s] chest and prone positioning during physical restraint by police." While there is no way of knowing whether Garner would have survived even if NYPD had positioned him differently, ventilated him with a pocket mask, or even started hands-only CPR, the long video of him lying motionless on the ground became the story.

Helping is the right thing to do

In a world with cameras everywhere and the expectation that law enforcement officers render aid, police departments will continue to find themselves in the media for in-custody injuries or the failure to provide medical aid. Even if the chances of survival are slim, by attempting to render aid, police officers can show that they respect the community members they are serving.

Whether or not police are subjected to the same duty to act as EMS, it is in everybody's best interest: the victim, the public, and the police themselves, and ultimately the right thing to do, to act.

About the Author
Daniel Berger, EMT, has volunteered as an EMT at over 150 events across California in the past three years, working with local fire departments, EMS agencies, and law enforcement agencies in dozens of jurisdictions. As full-time student at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, Daniel has worked to promote EMS to students, and is in the process of working with administrators to create an EMT Program.

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