Wash. police claim paramedics broke protocol in fatal incident

Police said paramedics failed to properly assess the patient and should not have let her go to the hospital in a police car


Lex Talamo
Yakima Herald-Republic, Wash.

YAKIMA, Wash. — The ambulance company involved in the care of a homeless Black woman who died in a Yakima hospital after she was taken there by police in June declined comment on the incident on Friday.

A 40-page letter released by the Yakima Police Department on Thursday about the June 3 death of Tiffany Eubanks, 33, said that Yakima County patient care protocols weren’t followed by paramedics with the private ambulance company American Medical Response.

The Yakima Police Department has issued a letter claiming American Medical Response paramedics broke protocol in treating a woman who died after being transported to the hospital in a police car. (Photo/Yakima Police Department Facebook)
The Yakima Police Department has issued a letter claiming American Medical Response paramedics broke protocol in treating a woman who died after being transported to the hospital in a police car. (Photo/Yakima Police Department Facebook)

American Medical Response said staff received a copy of the YPD’s letter on Friday and are reviewing the content. They declined further comment.

“Due to patient privacy laws, we cannot comment on the specifics of this transport,” the company said.

The Yakima Police Department released a “letter to the community” on Thursday providing details on the incident and subsequent investigations. Yakima Police Chief Matt Murray disciplined the commanding officer who was on scene for violating department policy, and said the YPD would release similar detailed information in high-profile incidents in the future. Murray also reinforced protocols regarding transport of ill and injured people.

What happened

Eubanks, 33, was found walking in and out of traffic in the area of Staff Sergeant Pendleton Way and North First Street on June 2. Paramedics called Yakima police for assistance when she became combative, and an officer arrived to find Eubanks strapped to a gurney, thrashing around to the point where she nearly fell off, according to information released by Yakima police and the Yakima County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office.

The officer handcuffed Eubanks, citing her safety and that the gurney strap was not enough to restrain her, police said.

Ambulance staff said they would not transport Eubanks in handcuffs without an officer present, and police decided to take her to the hospital in a police car. She was alert during the drive, but had a medical crisis in the back of the car once at the hospital, as an officer was seeking help for 12 minutes inside, according to the reports.

The hospital’s emergency staff administered almost immediate medical care, but Eubanks died at 3:27 a.m. — nine hours after her admission to the hospital. An autopsy found she died of methamphetamine toxicity, according to the prosecutor’s office.

The YPD documents cited a review by Yakima Fire Chief Aaron Markham, Deputy Fire Chief Patrick Reid, Deputy Fire Chief Jeremy Rodriguez and Murray. It concluded the paramedics had not provided appropriate medical care, via checking vital signs, determining cognitive ability, or taking a baseline EKG of Eubanks, despite her being within the ambulance crew’s care for 24 minutes.

“The Yakima Police Department and the officer were put in an awkward position as a result of an American Medical Response Ambulance paramedic opting not to provide the proper medical care to the subject,” a June 24 review letter from the chiefs said.

The YPD letter also said the ambulance crew’s decision to allow Eubanks to go to the hospital via police car, rather than ambulance, violated emergency protocols against turning patients over to a lower level of care.

Standards of care

Dr. Kay Funk, a retired doctor with more than 30 years in the medical field and a Yakima City Council member, reviewed the documents regarding the circumstances of Eubanks’ death.

“In this situation, the primary negligence was by the ambulance crew, whose performance was below the standard of care,” she said.

In a letter to city officials, Funk noted mental health problems, refusal of treatment, and severe physiological distress always present the potential for danger.

Funk said Eubanks’ death highlights systemic problems. She said that an ideal response to a crisis situation involves three types of expertise: the ability to safely restrain an individual face up on a gurney, the knowledge of airway control and vital sign monitoring, and mental health personnel with authority to order involuntary treatment of a person.

She also noted that it’s often not possible to obtain expertise in all three of those area at any given time, particularly due to staffing and inadequate financial resources.

Funk said in her letter that there’s been ongoing concern about the adequacy of private ambulance companies, who often staff operations with one paramedic and one EMT in the Yakima Valley.

Funk noted the call across the nation to reduce police funding and shift the resources to social services programs. She said she doesn’t see that as a feasible option for Yakima.

“The police department budget is already bare bones,” she said. “But this does highlight the need for more designated crisis responders and paramedics.”

Accountability

Murray’s letter reinforces department protocol related to the transfer of ill and injured people.

The police department’s existing policy provides that people suffering from both mental health and substance abuse should be transported to the hospital via ambulance. The policy authorizes officers to ride in an ambulance alongside the person if requested to do so by emergency services personnel to provide security.

“Ideally, an officer would have ridden in the ambulance with the patient,” Murray said in a follow-up response Friday.

Murray’s letter notes he has added the topic of transporting ill and injured people to mandatory training for all Yakima police officers this fall.

Murray said the existing policy does allow transport in a patrol vehicle of seriously ill or injured people in extreme circumstances, but added those situations would be very rare.

“Clearly an ambulance and trained medical team is the best option,” he said.

Yakima County Emergency Medical Services oversees ambulance services in the community.

Yakima County EMS said Friday the agency was in receipt of YPD’s letter but staff are still reviewing the content. The agency said it would provide additional comment in the future.

Police attempted to get help from a designated crisis responder on scene, connecting with one at the hospital. The program involves a partnership with Comprehensive Healthcare, which did not respond prior to publication of this story.

Virginia Mason Memorial also declined to comment on Eubanks’ case, citing patient privacy rights.

Randy Beehler, spokesman for the city of Yakima, said the city is always looking to expand programs that have proven effective and valuable over time, such as the Designated Crisis Response program.

But he added that funding is an issue.

“It comes down to funds, and things are tight right now,” Beehler said Friday.

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©2020 Yakima Herald-Republic (Yakima, Wash.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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