The 2011 death of Darris Johnson—who fell ill in the back of a police car after an intense chase that left him complaining he was short of breath—sparked immediate concerns about whether officers should have called paramedics sooner but never led to any discipline.
Investigators found officers Zach Zelinka and Justin Thurman followed the law and Portland Police Bureau policy in their handling of Johnson—deciding against calling EMTs, at first, because Johnson was talking normally, but then calling for help and pulling over once they realized he wasn't responsive. And Johnson, as an autopsy and toxicology test later revealed, had an enlarged heart and meth in his system. (His family was outragede by his death all the same.
But despite saying at the time that "it appears that everyone did everything right," the bureau last month, very quietly, moved to change its policy (pdf) so that someone in Johnson's condition would stand a better chance of having paramedics called immediately—and maybe stay alive. The changed policy was made public last night at the city's monthly Citizen Review Committee meeting. The policy itself was drafted after the 2006 death of James Chasse Jr., a man with schizophrenia killed after cops tackled and punched and Tasered him downtown.
Under the new amendments, officers must now call paramedics for someone who appears to be under the influence of cocaine or amphetamines and has also been in a prolonged altercation. And cops also now must proved they've someone who's exerted themselves—either in a struggle or chase—if they're under the influence of those substances.
"They had him in handcuffs already," Dan Handelman of Portland Copwatch said back in 2011. "Give him the benefit of the doubt and bring in the medics."
The new changes would appear to codify that helpful suggestion. I've asked the bureau for comment on the changes. Is this an admission something was wrong the whole time? Or is it a case of learning from mistakes after shootings and deaths—the subject of a harsh new audit I wrote about in Hall Monitor this week. I'll update if and when I hear back.