In March, a North Carolina police officer named Wende Kerl killed an armed suspect in the parking lot of a fast food restaurant in Charlotte. Danquirs Franklin, the alleged gunman, was crouching down next to the open passenger side of a car when Kerl fired multiple shots. Seconds later, Franklin slumped down, either losing consciousness or simply losing the ability to stay upright.
Kerl lowered her weapon in less than a minute after opening fire, as several other officers appeared to calmly gather around the parking lot to assess the situation. With several units of backup around them, not a single one of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department’s officers administered any sort of first aid to Franklin, who soon succumbed to three gunshot wounds to the abdomen. He was 27.
“I haven’t touched him yet, I shot him…” Kerl can be heard saying on body-cam video after Franklin has been on the ground for three and a half minutes.
The shooting of Franklin raises a crucial, and seemingly unanswerable, question: Should police officers provide first aid to people they injure?
Policies dictating when cops should provide first aid vary, because there is no federal enforcement requiring any kind of police training whatsoever. As a result, police forces across the U.S. have wildly different training standards for everything from handling mental-health calls to administering life-saving trauma care. And even if officers are trained in these skills early in their careers, there’s no standard policy that requires officers to further educate themselves in immediate injury care.
There is no federal enforcement requiring any kind of police training in first care whatsoever.
Like most aspects of policing, deciding when to treat someone injured in the field comes down to one thing: the officer’s discretion. In Kerl’s case, the department’s investigation of the shooting asserted that she had acted appropriately, even though the Mecklenberg County District Attorney, Spencer B. Merriweather III, found that Franklin wasn’t actually holding a weapon.
“We know it would be difficult for a person not actually holding a gun in their hands to comply with the competing commands of ‘drop the weapon’ and ‘put the gun on the ground...’” Merriweather wrote. “It seems clear she [Officer Kerl] took a position that enabled her to protect the passenger of the car if the decedent confronted him with lethal force.”
But treating gunshot wounds or most traumatic injuries that happen in the field is a race against time. In fact, according to the American College of Surgeons, hemorrhaging is the leading preventable cause of death in people who suffer traumatic injuries like gunshot wounds. And no one is tracking how many deaths by treatable injury could have been prevented by police officers, who are often the first to the scene of any 911 call, administering basic first aid.
Walid Saade, a Los Angeles Police Department officer who leads first-aid training for the force, told me that his department’s policy is to provide first aid only when both the officers and the public in the vicinity are safe. In other words, officers should only let their guard down to perform emergency first aid when it’s clear that any threat has been neutralized. However, Saade said that over the years, the department’s approach to first aid has become more comprehensive.
Treating gunshot wounds or most traumatic injuries that happen in the field is a race against time that police officers aren’t trained to deal with.
“Our training has improved a lot since I was recruited,” Saade, who was a trained emergency medical technician before becoming an officer, told me. “We are encouraging recruits to provide help, we're teaching them that it's the right thing to do when it's safe for them to do it.”
Saade also said that the types of emergencies an officer sees depend heavily on their patrol assignment. While some may respond to shootings on a daily basis, others may be assigned to neighborhoods where overdoses or heart attacks are the most common calls for service. Saade told me that the LAPD’s training emphasizes three major first-aid tools: CPR, AED (portable defibrillator) use, and bleeding control. “If you just know how to control a major bleed by applying a tourniquet, you could save somebody's life,” Saade told me.
According to Saade, LAPD recruits are required to pass 22 hours of first aid training, in addition to taking a refresher course every two years. However, the department has close to 10,000 sworn-in officers. (In comparison, Charlotte-Mecklenberg has less than 2,000). And while Saade believes the LAPD actually overprepares its officers with first-aid training and trauma care, other cities may not have the resources to do so.
After Franklin was shot, officers in the vicinity opted to wait for EMTs instead of applying pressure to Franklin’s wounds. And they’re not the only police department that’s hasn’t tended to a visibly dying suspect. Last year, the Louisville Metropolitan Police killed an armed suspect in a residence after responding to a domestic disturbance call. Fourty-four seconds after shots were fired by the police, an officer can be heard on body-cam footage saying, “I don’t think he’s going nowhere.” But it wasn’t until four minutes after the shooting that another officer assessed the wounds of the victim, 35-year-old Benjamin Kennedy, and then asked if anyone had a medical kit in their squad car. In that time, another officer can be heard saying what sounds like “good shot!” — the shooting officer had hit Kennedy “right in the heart.”
Mark Jones, a senior police advisor for the Illinois Council on Handgun Violence, is a former police officer and former federal agent. He told me that, since most police departments don’t have many officers and have limited training budgets, it’s not surprising that first-aid training isn’t prioritized.
“One of the prime reasons that smaller agencies don’t get trained is that they’re small,” Jones said.
The other problem, according to Jones, is that even in cities where first-aid protocols may be more well-defined, it’s virtually impossible to control how officers respond to heated situations. Jones echoed Saade, noting that in his experience, first aid is generally supposed to be administered by officers once they deem the situation safe. However, he’s not surprised that in many viral body-cam videos, officers might appear either passive or frozen for several minutes after a suspect or innocent individual is shot. Leaving the next move up to cops gives them a lot of room to decide whether or not to administer first aid, Jones said.
“My guess is after they’ve shot some folks, they’re not standing there just waiting to shoot him again,” Jones said. “They check the suspect and then they stand around bs-ing until the ambulance comes.” He added that such egregious examples are likely the minority, and the reason that most cops might waver in a situation that demands first aid is more likely to shock or lack of training.
Anthony Beckford, an activist who leads the Brooklyn chapter of the highly vocal police-watchdog organization, Copwatch, told me that he’s been on the receiving end of excessive police force twice. Though Beckford wasn’t severely injured in either case and didn’t require immediate medical attention, he isn’t confident that the cops he’s encountered would give him first aid if he was seriously injured.
“We see it almost on a consistent basis,” Beckford said of the New York Police Department’s treatment of injured civilians. “The person says, ‘I need to go to the hospital’ or, ‘I need an ambulance,’ and the officers would just stand around and laugh at them, or leave them on the ground.” (The NYPD declined an interview request, but said over e-mail that officers receive life support and trauma care training.)
Beckford believes a driving force behind some police officers’ slow response to tend to civilian injuries in the field is a growing antagonism between civilians and cops. “There's no concern for life,” he said, “it’s a culture within law enforcement. It's almost like a gang mentality where, to them, it's them versus us.”
While Jones acknowledged that some officers may be driven by ill intent, he believes the lack of standardization in training among the thousands of officers at roughly 18,000 agencies across the U.S. is what needs to be fixed in order to decrease the number of preventable deaths that take place while officers are present. In fact, the federal government knows so little about local policing that the estimate of 18,000 agencies in our country is an educated guess. No national agency tracks training standards, officer involved shootings, or even officer disciplinary records.
Jones also said that political polarization in the U.S. might encouraging the “them versus us” mentality that Beckford described. Since working as a patrol officer in the early ’80s, Jones has seen a shift in mentality between the public and local police forces.
Even in cities where first-aid protocols may be more well-defined, it’s virtually impossible to control how officers respond to heated situations.
“Cops had a whole lot of trust from the public for a really long time,” Jones told me. “And it’s been sort of broken with the use of video showing. I would say generally speaking, rogue cops exercising whatever discretion they’ve got in a bad way.”
But Jones also stressed that current discourse around improving cop culture is creating conflicting expectations.
“You have to remember that when you call 911 and you get the police to come to your situation, you're asking them for an armed response, whether that's exactly what you wanted or not,” he said.
While many police departments are implementing mental-health training or improving de-escalation training, Jones highlighted that well-trained police won’t replace the need for professional intervention from a doctor or social worker. “For generations, cops have been basically the brute squad,” Jones said, “That's their job, to come in and break stuff up.” Not to aid in fixing or healing.
Still, for people like Beckford, who frequently encounter police and make a point to monitor how cops interact with civilians, reform isn’t going to come without an overhaul in accountability.
“It is a choice of theirs at that moment,” Beckford said, referring to a cop’s decision to administer first aid. “And it's a choice of their superiors to penalize them for not going by their training and their protocol. But if there's no accountability, they’re not gonna do it.”