Yash Roy, Contributing Photographer

Police officers in Connecticut may soon be required to call for emergency medical care when in contact with a person who requests care or is experiencing an emergency medical condition.

This reform is the crux of the Medical Civil Rights Act, a piece of legislation that was proposed in March by State Senator Martin Looney with the backing of the Medical Civil Rights Initiative — a group that advocates for the passage of medical civil rights bills across the country. While the bill passed the Senate unanimously, it died in the State House. Senator Looney plans to reintroduce the bill for the 2023 session, especially in the wake of Randy Cox’s paralyzation at the hands of New Haven Police Department.

“If we had passed [the Medical Civil Rights Act], at the point that he said, ‘I can’t move’… they would have had a duty to immediately request EMS,” Leonore Dluhy, the director of the Medical Civil Rights Initiative, told the News. “They would not have continued with the transport with him.”

Cox sustained spine and neck injuries — leaving him paralyzed — while being driven to a police station in a van without seat belts after being arrested for weapons charges that prosecutors later dropped. 

The injuries occurred when the NHPD officer behind the wheel stopped abruptly to avoid a car crash while speeding. Instead of calling for an ambulance, as the law would have dictated, the officer drove Cox to the police detention center. Officers then dragged Cox out of the van, processed him in a wheelchair and put him into a holding cell — all without providing or requesting medical care. When Cox repeatedly told the officers that he could not move, one officer responded by telling Cox he “just drank too much.”

“We felt that it was something that might have helped Randy in this situation,” Jack O’Donnell, one of Cox’s attorneys said. “After he was slammed against the front wall, and began to say that he can’t move, he thinks his neck is broken. There are a lot more subtle encounters that the police are going to have to be sensitive to. This was as blatant as blatant can be.”

What is the Medical Civil Rights Act?

The Medical Civil Rights Act first grants people an affirmative right to medical care, meaning that police are required to call for EMS when someone is experiencing an emergency medical condition and requests care. Second, it requires police to call for EMS when they see someone experiencing an emergency medical condition, regardless of whether the person requests it.

Dluhy recalled crafting the legislation of the MCRA with her since-deceased father, Robert Dluhy, after watching footage of Freddie Gray’s arrest by Baltimore Police in 2015. Gray died in police custody after sustaining injuries while in a police transport vehicle, sparking nationwide protests.

“We had watched the footage of Freddie Gray being dragged to the police wagon. And my father made a comment, which, you know, was very typical of him,” Dluhy said. “He said, ‘He doesn’t need a lawyer. He needed a physician.’ And we contemplated that for a moment.”

After conducting research into what rights to medical care Gray had while being taken into custody, the Dluhys learned that those who came into “police contact” — a term encompassing all interactions with the police, ranging from a traffic stop to arrests — had no affirmative right to request medical care.

The MCRA attempts to remedy that gap. 

Such legislation has often been referred to as a “medical Miranda,” a reference to a person’s Miranda rights. Dluhy described the analogy as apt, noting that while someone has right to counsel during a custodial interrogation, they have no parallel right to a clinician.

Julie Ingelfinger, a member of the medical civil rights committee for MCRI, as well as a pediatrician at Massachusetts General Hospital and a professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, stressed that the legislation could have a significant impact on the ability to provide care for those in police custody.  

“For acute trauma that occurs, for example, if someone is thrown against a wall by a police officer, and is injured and has a spinal cord injury, minutes will make a huge difference,” Ingelfinger said.

Ingelfinger also listed diabetic ketoacidosis and strokes as instances where the lack of a rapid medical response, with delays of as little as 20 minutes, could lead to fatalities.

Another important part of the legislation, which was highlighted by James Bhandary-Alexander, the legal director of the Medical Legal Partnership at the Solomon Center for Health Law and Policy at Yale Law School, was that it used the standard of a “prudent layperson” to determine what an emergency medical condition was.

“Oftentimes, when we’re judging police officer actions we’re looking at the issue of qualified immunity … which tips the scales heavily in favor of police officers not being held responsible for things like, for example, a reckless disregard of a person’s health emergency,” Bhandary-Alexander told the News. “As a police officer responding to this, you’re gonna be judged to understand the situation the way anyone else would. And to me, that’s very positive.” 

Bhandary-Alexander said that he thought the legislation, if passed, would help alter police mentality from focusing on how to use force to how to best protect the health of the person they were encountering.  

Medical civil rights in the Randy Cox case

In the case of Randy Cox, had this legislation been in place and followed, he would never have been taken to the detention center for processing. Instead, Cox would have received medical care as soon as he was paralyzed by the sudden stop of the officer driving the transport van.

“From all I know about Mr. Cox, I think his treatment was delayed,”  Ingelfinger said. “It could have made a huge difference for Mr. Cox.”

Bhandary-Alexander agreed that the proposed legislation seemed applicable in this situation, especially as it focused police attention on the health of the people they’re in contact with. He was also quick to emphasize that the incident that paralyzed Cox was still very much a crime, even without this particular legislation.

NHPD Chief Karl Jacobson told the News that they had added medical Miranda procedures to officer policy and training, following other policy changes the department had made in response to paralyzing Cox.

“I’m totally on board with it, ” Jacobson said. “It’s something that you wouldn’t think that you have put in there, but it’s in light of what’s happened.”

Jacobson also said that he “1000 percent” supported Looney’s plan to pass the Medical Civil Rights Act next year.

Next steps for the Medical Civil Rights Act

Looney hopes that the second time will be the charm for shepherding the legislation through the General Assembly.

“I certainly intend to introduce that again this year,” Looney said. “The Randy Cox case exactly points out why it’s necessary.”

O’Donnell also expressed hope that the legislation would pass and speculated that either Cox or his family might testify in support of the bill. He also mentioned conversations he had about naming the bill after Cox.

Dluhy and MCRI hope Connecticut is just the first step in expanding this type of legislation to cover people nationwide. A similar bill has also been introduced in Massachusetts, and Dluhy expressed optimism that after passing such laws in a few states, they could pursue a Medical Civil Rights Act on the federal level. 

“It’s staggering when you consider how many lives would have been saved by a very clear statutory duty to provide immediate emergency medical care,” Dluhy said. “So even though it seems like a very simple bill, and it’s a couple paragraphs, it will be a landmark change.” 

Nationwide, Dluhy estimated that such legislation could save hundreds of lives, noting how over 1,000 people are fatally shot by police every year, and that most data on police violence is incomplete and does not consider non-fatal incidents or incidents that are not immediately fatal.

According to the Department of Justice, 61.5 million people had at least one contact with police in 2018. 

Nathaniel Rosenberg is City Editor for the News. He previously served as Audience Editor, where he managed the News's newsletter content, covered cops and courts and housing and homelessness for the City Desk. Originally from Silver Spring, MD, he is a junior in Morse College majoring in history.