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It’s time for EMS-police dialogue, cooperation after L.A. EMT arrest

This unfortunate incident is an opportunity to educate law enforcement partners on things like patient restraint, scene safety and policy


Los Angeles Police officers, firefighters and paramedics evacuate a person who fell ill in the Skid Row section of Los Angeles, Friday, Aug. 19, 2016.

AP Photo/Nick Ut

A Los Angeles County EMT was arrested, handcuffed, thrown in a police car, hauled off to jail, and thrown in a cage because an LAPD sergeant “thought” she saw something untoward. Only after video evidence showed that the EMT was doing his job the way it was supposed to have been done, did the police backpedal and say it was “all just a misunderstanding” and let him go.

A “misunderstanding,” really? Where is the accountability? Where is the integrity? EMS providers have it tough enough as it is, and this is why I do what I do.

When I tell people that I am an EMS defense attorney, I often get a head-tilt of confusion. They wonder what kind of trouble EMS people get in. Then they usually opine that if an EMS provider gets in trouble, they probably deserve it. Rather than allow my blood to boil, I take a deep, cleansing breath and explain to them how the system is supposed to work. EMS people get it right away; non-EMS people have a hard time understanding.

Here’s what I explain to those on the outside of EMS:

The daily existence of any EMS provider is fraught with the uncertainty of never knowing what is going to happen in any given moment and how they might react. EMS providers – perhaps even more than police officers – must make multiple, critical calculations in fractions of seconds, several times each day and night. They must process volumes of verbal, physical, environmental and situational information immediately and simultaneously in order to be effective – and to operate within policy, protocol and procedure under circumstances not previously contemplated. EMS life is one never-ending series of practical exams and scenarios; many similar, but no two ever the same.

Such tumult and chaos are too much for most normal people to manage, which is why only a very select few can actually do EMS. Unfortunately, for the uninitiated looking in from the outside, a lack of understanding leads to an abundance of judgement, and EMTs end up getting carted off to jail for doing the right and proper thing.

The perception gap must be bridged by evidence, not assumption

I don’t necessarily begrudge the sergeant for thinking something may have been improper; that’s how police are trained to think; how they are trained to observe the world. However, the gap between “think” and “know” (for all of us) must be bridged by evidence, not assumption; by fact, not suspicion – and that did not happen here.

Imagine, if you will, if there had been no bodycam video to exculpate the EMT. What do you suppose would have happened? The case would have been prosecuted on the word of a police sergeant against the word of private ambulance EMT. In the court of public opinion – and any other court – how do you think that would have worked out for the EMT? Not well. He would have been left to prove his own innocence in direct contradiction to the Constitution of the United States and every value we hold dear.

Before you say that’s not how it works, I am here to tell you, that is how it happens. That near-minimum-wage EMT would have been forced to shell out thousands of dollars for legal representation, thousands more for bail, and thousands more to prepare a winnable trial against a prosecutorial system with unlimited resources and the tenacity to do whatever is necessary to win – all for a crime he did not commit. Even if, at the end of it all, he was exonerated, he would never get the money, the dignity or the time back; the fear, humiliation and mistrust would never go away.

Educating police about EMS safety, procedure

While the paramedic in me is angry and wants nothing more than to see this provider awarded a mountain of cash along with a public apology, the EMS attorney in me wants to know how these kinds of incidents can be prevented in the future; how the problems can be fixed.

The answer, I believe – is as it usually is – is education and communication.

While police and EMS providers live parallel existences, their perceptions, training, instincts and tactics are completely different. That is not necessarily a bad thing, given the significant difference in their respective roles, but it is a reality, and therein lies a breeding ground for miscommunication, misperception and mistake.

Of course, this is not the first time an EMS provider has been arrested for doing the job. In San Diego, California, a firefighter was arrested for blocking traffic and protecting a traffic collision scene. The same thing happened in Texas. In Oklahoma, an EMT was manhandled by a police officer – we all saw that video. The same thing happened in Ohio.

Just like in every other similar case, this horrific situation is another perfect opportunity to open a dialogue between EMS agencies and police agencies; for each to educate the other on things like patient restraint, scene safety and policy.

In every jurisdiction, EMS and law enforcement are mutually and heavily reliant on one another. EMS depends on police to be there when danger overwhelms, and police depend on EMS when an officer goes down. Although operating in different worlds, in every universe, EMS and law enforcement are in it together.

Everything and anything that undermines the trust between functions only hurts everyone. This is not the time for ego or turf battles. This is the time for dialogue and cooperation. columnist David Givot, a seasoned EMS employee with three years of law school under his belt, is looking to the future of EMS. He has created as a first step toward improving the state of EMS through information and education designed to protect EMS professionals nationwide.