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“Excessive Force” Study Gravely Flawed, Says FSRC

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Strong skepticism has been expressed by the Force Science Research Center regarding a recently publicized survey showing that a high percentage of emergency room doctors believe they see evidence of police brutality in the patients they treat.

The poll, published in Emergency Medicine Journal, reports that 99.8% of ER physicians responding to a random-sample survey believe that excessive use of force by police “actually occurs” and that 97.8% say they have managed patients they suspect were victims of excessive force.

The survey, conducted by a research team of 6 MDs, including faculty members at some of the nation’s leading medical schools, has received coverage in a wide variety of professional publications, as well as the mass media, under headlines such as: “Excessive Police Violence Evident in Emergency Room Cases, U.S. Docs Say.” A description of the report and directions for purchasing a full copy can be accessed by clicking here.

If you are confronted with this study in dialog with civilians or challenged with it in a courtroom, Dr. Bill Lewinski, executive director of FSRC at Minnesota State University-Mankato, argues emphatically that there are more than adequate grounds for countering it.

“The survey’s methods appear to conform to academic standards,” Lewinski told Force Science News, “but the results are meaningless. It’s impossible for ER physicians to know the context of injuries just by looking at them. The nature of an injury is totally unrelated to the justification for the level of force responsible for it.

“In essence, this survey is of little use or benefit to society, and it tends to malign law enforcement unjustly and unscientifically.”

The researchers’ findings were based on mailed responses from 315 full-time academic ER doctors associated with emergency medicine residency training programs in the U.S. The vast majority were Caucasian males between 30-50 years old, board-certified in emergency medicine, practicing in cities of 250,000 to more than 1,000,000 population, and affiliated with university, community, or public teaching hospitals.

The 97.8% who believe they have treated victims of police brutality made this determination based on their own suspicions or on what they were told by the patients themselves, the study states. About 65% said they recognized 2 or more cases of “suspected excessive use of force per year.” Some 7% believe excessive force occurs “often” or “very often,” while only a tiny fraction of 1% (0.2%) believe it never occurs.

As to the types of excesses suspected, 95.5% of the responders cited “blunt trauma,” 95.2% “fists and feet,” 73.1% “handcuffs too tight,” 48.6% “night sticks,” and 26.9% “flashlights.” In short, the researchers conclude, “The suspicion of excessive use of force by law enforcement officers is clearly an issue encountered” by emergency room physicians.

The very last line of study report acknowledges what Lewinski points out is the “fatal flaw” of this research. The survey questions, the authors concede, “asked respondents to make a subjective judgment, most often without objective evidence; as such, this study reflects EPs’ [emergency physicians’] perceptions of events rather than what actually happened.”

This is the limitation, Lewinski says, that renders the study meaningless.

“First of all,” he notes, “relying on suspects to accurately report whether they have experienced excessive force or not is absurd. In the 40 years I have been involved with law enforcement, I’ve never known a suspect who was injured by police to say, ‘Oh, yes, I received just the right amount of force that was necessary to control my resistance.’

“Moreover, one has to ask what else the surveyed physicians were basing their suspicions on. Other than what a patient or an officer says, a doctor in the ER has no knowledge of the context in which force was used or how it relates to policy, procedure, training, or the law.

“Depending on the circumstances, police can use force that results in injuries up to and including death and not have that force considered by law to be excessive. A doctor who’s unfamiliar with all the elements involved simply can’t use the extent or nature of injury as a basis for judging whether force was appropriate.

“It is fair to say that most ER physicians have never ridden in a squad car and seen first-hand the kinds of force situations officers are thrust into. Most have no information or training on what constitutes excessive force. Yet in their responses to this survey, they are making judgments on a professional activity they really know nothing about.

“That’s ironic when you consider how sensitive doctors are as a group to any outsiders second-guessing their professional decisions!

“All this study really tells us is that ER physicians sometimes have suspicions based wholly on non-scientific data that excessive force was used. To report this as a serious finding is misleading to the public and smears, by implication, the professional integrity of law enforcement officers throughout the country.”

Among the doctors surveyed, roughly 70% thought “it is within their scope of practice to refer cases of suspected use of excessive force for investigation,” although more than 70% said they do not currently report their suspicions. About half believe that such reporting by ER physicians “should be legally required,” as is the case with suspicions of child abuse, sexual assaults, weapons wounds, etc.

“Assessing police use-of-force injuries is significantly and qualitatively different from any other area they’re required to report on,” Lewinski notes. Nonetheless, voicing a suspicion of his own, he speculates that this survey will be used to encourage legislation for mandatory reporting by ER personnel of suspected police brutality.

[Our thanks to Chris Lawrence, a member of FSRC’s national advisory board, for tipping us about this survey.]

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