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Massachusetts legislators reintroduced a bill Friday to establish a civil right to request medical care during encounters with police.
The Medical Civil Rights Act would require Massachusetts police officers to “immediately request emergency medical services” when someone in police custody or contact experiences a medical emergency. The bill was first presented before the Massachusetts legislature in February 2021 but did not make it out of committee for a vote.
The bill’s refiling on Friday by State Senator Elizabeth “Liz” Miranda and State Representative Jon Santiago follows years of advocacy by the Medical Civil Rights Initiative, a group that works to pass similar legislation across the United States.
“It’s not necessarily that we identified 2023 as a key year, but it’s taken us this long to gain some support and to be able to have communications with legislators with different constituencies,” said Leonore A. Dluhy ’92, the initiative’s director. “It’s not been an easy road.”
If the bill is passed, Massachusetts would be the first state to guarantee the right to request medical care during a police encounter. Similar bills have been put forward in Maine and Connecticut, though the Connecticut bill failed in 2022.
Dluhy, who helped draft the bill, said the law is critically important to protecting those who interact with police officers, adding that some officers are “deliberately indifferent” to their medical needs.
“Do you want a statutory protection, or do you want to be at the discretion of an officer who’s not a trained medical professional to determine whether or not you have a right to medical care?” Dluhy said.
The bill’s reintroduction comes after the police killing of Sayed Faisal, a 20-year-old college student and Cambridge resident, earlier this month. According to a Cambridge Police Department press release, officers responded to a 911 call that described Faisal harming himself. When he allegedly approached officers while wielding a knife after a five-block foot chase, an officer shot and killed him.
A surge of protests from residents followed the killing, with many activists calling for CPD reform and pushing for non-police public safety alternatives, calling for medical professionals to respond to mental health crises instead of police.
Henry L. “Hank” Dorkin, a member of the initiative, said there is a sharp distinction between the Medical Civil Rights Act and calls for reallocation of funds from police.
“This in no way is considered to be defunding the police,” Dorkin said.
Dluhy started work on the initiative with her father, an internal medicine physician, in 2015 in response to the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old Black man who sustained a fatal spinal cord injury while in Baltimore Police custody.
Malcolm P. “Mac” Rogers, a psychiatrist with the initiative, said police are ill-equipped to handle mental health emergencies.
“I do think the police generally try to do the right thing, but these are complicated situations,” said Rogers, a Harvard Medical School graduate. “And unfortunately, a number of those situations tend to escalate in the wrong direction.”
The Medical Civil Rights Act “importantly lowers the threshold for law enforcement individuals to seek medical evaluations in those situations,” he added.
“When there’s an egregious wrong, you look for a remedy,” said Frederick L. Brown ’54, a retired Massachusetts Appeals Court justice on the initiative.
Dorkin, a pediatric pulmonologist, said the costs from implementing the Medical Civil Rights Act would be considerably less than the costs to taxpayers from police-involved deaths.
Dluhy also said the bill affects a wide swath of Americans, citing Department of Justice statistics that showed more than 80,000 arrests in Massachusetts in 2021. She added that individuals often encounter police officers in medical emergencies.
“In order for us to move forward in this state, we need every person to be invested in the fact that this bill pertains to them,” Dluhy said.
Correction: January 25, 2023
A previous version of this article incorrectly described Frederick L. Brown ’54 as a retired Massachusetts Supreme Court Justice. In fact, Brown served as a justice on the Massachusetts Appeals Court.
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