Editorial: Police medical response bill unneeded

Law would place undue burden on police to make judgment
Andrew Kearse and his wife, Angelique Negroni-Kearse.
Andrew Kearse and his wife, Angelique Negroni-Kearse.

Everyone is rightly concerned these days about abuse and negligence by police officers.

And more action is always needed to protect citizens from abuses.

But well-meaning new legislation proposed by a Bronx Assemblywoman to criminalize the conduct of officers who fail to obtain medical care for someone in custody complaining of a medical condition is not the action that’s needed.

The bill (A11378) would require any law enforcement officer “to provide immediate medical attention when an inmate or person in custody displays medical distress.”

In addition to calls for new training, it creates a new misdemeanor charge of “criminally negligent failure to obtain medical care” for officers found not to have met the new standards.

The bill is based on the May 2017 death of Andrew Kearse, who died in Schenectady police custody of a pre-existing heart condition after he was capture fleeing from police after a car and foot chase.

Kearse was shown on a police video of his ride to the police station saying he was having trouble breathing. But he was not in obvious distress, was speaking in a clear voice, was sitting upright during the ride, was not complaining of any pain and was not asking for a doctor.

A cardiologist for the state who viewed the videotape said “even he would not have recognized from observation alone that Mr. Kearse required advanced cardiac life support measures.” If a cardiologist can’t always determine distress, how can a police officer?

Do you think criminals don’t ever try scams to get out of custody? Kearse had already run from police twice. If suspects think they can get a police officer to roll down the window (where they could reach out and open the door) or stop and let them out merely by complaining about some medical condition, they’ll do it 100 times out of 100. Is a police officer just supposed to put himself and the public at risk whenever a suspect complains?

Not only does the bill place an undue burden on officers, it’s also not needed.

Officers are already subject to criminal and departmental charges in suspect deaths. The Kearse case was presented to a grand jury and the officer was cleared.

And in response to Kearse’s death, law enforcement agencies are already taking steps to improve procedures for when suspects complain of breathing issues and to provide training for recognizing medical emergencies.

It’s true, as the bill says, “A pair of handcuffs is no reason for someone to die.” But this legislation puts an unreasonable burden on police to act on a every suspect’s claims of a medical condition, while unnecessarily duplicating laws and regulations already in place to punish truly negligent officers.

Categories: Editorial, Opinion

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