Protecting and Serving Whom?
Today, I had the joy of observing an officer of the Newton Police force take a bad situation and make it worse. The incident showed much that is wrong in the relationship between the common citizen and the government that is there to protect him or her. An elderly person had fallen and a police officer detained her, kept her on a brick side-walk so that EMT’s from an unwanted ambulance could check her out, an operation that blocked traffic and slowed it to a crawl on a major thoroughfare.
It was mid afternoon on a side-walk adjoining a very heavily travelled intersection in a very busy commercial section of town. Two weeks ago, the town of Newton stationed police to direct traffic, congesting traffic even more, ironically enough.
I was walking down the side-walk, when I noticed someone sprawled on the bricks about 100 yards away, with two women crouching over this person, their postures showing concern. Across the street from me, a police officer was stationed at the cross-walk to direct traffic. He was staring at the group but otherwise taking no action.
The person having remained sprawled on the side-walk, I trotted over to her. For this article, I will call her Betty. Betty was an elderly woman. She was bleeding from cuts on her hand. She apologized and explained that she had Parkinson’s disease, and had lost her balance while on her way to a physical therapy appointment. She said she was fine, but needed a moment before she was prepared to try standing. One of the women standing over her was a staff member at the physical therapy clinic, and she suggested that once the fallen woman was ready she would help her up and walk her to the clinic.
At this point the police officer arrived. He asked what was going on. He asked the woman if she had had anything to drink. She explained that she had Parkinson’s and that she had just finished a two-hour drive from a vacation spot and that as a result she thought her balance had been unusually affected. The officer asked her where she was going. She said she had a physical therapy appointment and gestured toward the clinic door not 20 feet away. He asked if she wanted an ambulance. She said no, that she would go to the clinic and have them check her out.
At this point the police officer ‘detained’ her. “I’ve already called the ambulance, and it is my policy that whenever someone gets hurt on city property the EMT’s check them out.” The woman protested that she didn’t want this, that she wanted to go inside. “It’s my policy, when they get here, you can refuse treatment and be on your way” the officer repeated firmly.
At this point, the woman thought she was being detained. However, she wasn’t legally detained. She could have gotten up and walked away, and the police officer would have no legal cause to stop her. However, she thought she was being detained. She slumped down on the bricks defeated, asking if this was necessary. I asked Betty if her husband was parking the car. She said no, that her husband would be back in an hour to pick her up. She emphatically said she didn’t want her husband finding out that she had fallen.
A senior person at the clinic came out. We’ll call her Mary. She kneeled down beside Betty and asked her how she was doing. Betty held up a bloody finger and said, “I want to go inside to get a bandaid.” Mary said, “Sure.” The police officer interrupted, “The EMT’s are on the way. Since she fell on city property she has to be checked out by the EMT’s”.
Mary then offered the first bit of medical assistance to Betty since her fall, “I’ll run inside and get a first aid kit.” At this point the officer patted a pouch and said I have band-aids here. He made no motion to help Betty though, but instead busied himself with a radio call. At this point I asked Mary and Betty if they thought they might need my help, and they thanked me and said no, they didn’t so I walked away. Out of my office window, I watched as a fire truck blocked one lane, an ambulance blocked one lane going the other way, and the EMT’s and firefighters shuttling across the street completely blocked the road, snarling traffic for a good half mile either way.
So what was wrong with this picture?
The police illegally detained Betty
The police officer deliberately gave Betty the impression that she was being detained. She was not. He couldn’t detain her because he had no probable cause to think she might have committed a crime. It is not against the law to have a neurological disorder in public. Nor is it against the law for a person to fall accidentally on a public sidewalk.
The police hindered Betty in her quest for the treatment she desired.
Betty wanted to go into the clinic rather than lie in the hot sun on an uneven brick sidewalk. She didn’t want EMT’s fussing over her. She wanted her friends at the clinic. Had the police not detained her, she could have gotten the treatment she desired much sooner.
The police made the episode unnecessarily expensive to the tax-payers.
When a fire truck responds to an emergency, when EMT’s are dispatched to an accident, it costs the tax-payers money. Once Betty announced her intention to refuse medical treatment, the officer should have cancelled the call.
In fact, the police officer should not have called an ambulance until he had spoken to Betty. What if she had merely lied down because she had a cramp and was trying to loosen it with a stretching exercise?
Nobody stood up for Betty.
I didn’t ask the police officer, “Officer, are you detaining her or is she free to leave.” I freely admit that this was because I didn’t want to get on the officer’s bad side. My primary source of income is as a contractor billing hourly, and if he detained me for disorderly conduct, I would have trouble paying my bills. Even worse, I could lose my contract.
I could see in Mary’s eyes that she thought the police officer was making Betty’s life more difficult. But she didn’t speak up either. Obviously, I don’t know what her reasons for staying quiet were. But, from the glance we exchanged, I don’t think it was because she agreed with the police officer’s actions.
This incident was quite ordinary. An old woman lost her balance on an uneven side-walk and cut her hand. Had the police not been around, no doubt the passers-by would have asked her if she wanted an ambulance and when she said no, would have helped her into the clinic where they would have bandaged her up. The hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of commerce travelling down that major road would have journeyed without impediment.
The police hindered those trying to help her, increased the expense to the tax-payers and coldly tricked her into sitting on an uncomfortable surface in the sun to await unwanted and expensive “help”.
And nobody had the wherewithal to protest to their faces.