Negligence case has police seeking medical policy

With ruling, liability is issue for officers

Anne Arundel

November 25, 2001|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

Anne Arundel County police union leaders say a trial board finding that an officer was negligent after a drunken-driving suspect died of antifreeze poisoning in a holding cell shows that police policies are unclear.

Since Charles R. Atwell was found negligent this month, more than a dozen lieutenants in search of legal protections have joined the Fraternal Order of Police, union officials said. And supervisors and union leaders are advising their officers to call for an ambulance any time there is any question whether a suspect is ill -- physically or mentally.

"I think a lot of officers are being extremely cautious -- with good reason," said FOP President Ricardo Hawkins. "Everyone's looking over their shoulders."

Before Atwell's trial, union officials said, officers could only speculate about whether the veteran officer wrongly put Philip Montgomery, who was stumbling and slurring his speech, in a Southern District holding cell instead of calling an ambulance. The 20-year-old Calvert County man later died of antifreeze poisoning.

But after Atwell was found guilty of violating departmental policy and a trial board recommended he be fired, officers and their unions have been weighing the implications of the case.

"I think there's a heightened awareness about liability," said Sgt. Bret Ballam, president of the Anne Arundel County Sergeants Association, the union that represents all but one of the county's police sergeants.

Officers are wondering how they can be sure that a person they are arresting doesn't have a medical problem.

And with a sergeant and a lieutenant still facing trial board hearings in the case, police commanders are asking whether they will be held responsible for every mistake an officer on their shift might make.

FOP Vice President Stephen McBee said that many officers are confused about why the arresting officer, the sergeant and a lieutenant on duty the night Montgomery died, have been charged with departmental violations, but the corporal who was the acting sergeant that night has not.

"I'm not saying he should have been charged," said McBee. "But because this is a personnel matter [and therefore not public record], we may never know the answer."

Ballam said the sergeants association may request in the next round of contract negotiations that the practice of having acting sergeants be eliminated.

"If a sergeant is going to be held responsible for what happens, many of our members believe a sergeant should be the one in the position," Ballam said.

The leaders of the two unions agreed that the department should better define who is an "ill, injured or unconscious person" who must be provided medical treatment, as regulations now state. It became clear during Atwell's hearing that officers hold different opinions about when a suspect should be sent to the hospital.

"If you're going to hold officers and supervisors responsible to this level, these can't be guidelines," said Hawkins. "They need to be clearly defined rules."

Immediately after Montgomery's death, department commanders who reviewed procedures found no need to make revisions.

Union officials say they don't expect the section to be clarified -- at least not in writing -- any time soon because the department and county face a lawsuit by Montgomery's family, and changing the policy could be viewed as an admission that the regulations weren't sufficient.

But union leaders say they will push for changes.

In the meantime, many supervisors and union leaders say they already have advised officers to let supervisors -- or, better yet, paramedics -- make the decision about whether a suspect needs to go to the hospital.

Union officials say they hope the case doesn't set a precedent that officers should be held to the same standard as doctors or that an officer is responsible for everyone who attempts suicide.

"It would be very difficult for police to be trained to know everything a person could ingest that would mimic the effects of alcohol," said Ballam.

Meanwhile, the rank and file await the police chief's decision about whether he will accept the trial board's recommendation that Atwell be fired.

Trial board hearings have not yet been scheduled for the sergeant and lieutenant charged in the case.

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