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Families impacted by police violence fight for ‘medical civil rights’

A bill before the Legislature’s joint Judiciary Committee would ensure that anyone experiencing a medical emergency while in contact with police would get help.

Jennifer Root Bannon, left, and Annemarie Grant waited in a State House hearing room to give testimony on the Medical Civil Rights Act on Tuesday.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

It’s been more than seven years since Annemarie Grant’s brother, Thomas Purdy, died in police custody in Nevada after being hogtied and asphyxiated by officers ignoring his requests for medical assistance. Now, the Quincy resident said she is on a mission to protect other families from suffering similar losses by ensuring that anyone experiencing a medical emergency while interacting with police gets help.

“Everybody deserves medical attention,” she said. “Had they called the ambulance like any human being with decency should have done, especially in a situation where he was non-aggressive and noncombative, he would still be alive.”

Grant and others who have lost loved ones to police violence testified Tuesday during an hours-long hearing before the Legislature’s joint Judiciary Committee in support of a bill that would guarantee medical care to anyone experiencing a health crisis during an encounter with police.

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The “Act Establishing Medical Civil Rights” would require all law enforcement officers, including officers at universities, hospitals, the state police department, and the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority police department, to summon emergency medical care for anyone who communicates they’re experiencing a medical emergency or reasonably appears to be medically unstable.

The act would guarantee the right to medical care while experiencing an emergency related to physical or mental health, substance use disorder, and severe pain or injury.

Leonore Dluhy began working on the legislation in 2015 with her late father, Dr. Robert Dluhy, a longtime Harvard Medical School professor and endocrinologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, after the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old Black man who died from injuries sustained while in police custody in Baltimore, setting off days of protest and civil unrest. In 2019, the Dluhys founded the Medical Civil Rights Initiative, a committee of six physicians and a retired appellate judge, which drafted the bill and is working to advance similar legislation in every state.

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“[Freddie Gray] begged for over 30 minutes for medical care...his last words [before succumbing to a coma] was ‘help me’,” she said. “As the law stands now, people don’t have a right to survive police interactions.”

The bill is important because it clarifies the duties police officers have to provide reasonable care, especially to people in their custody, said Christopher Robertson, a professor at Boston University School of Law, who is not affiliated with the legislation.

“People should be able to count on the police to help them get medical help; after all, police are first responders,” he said. “Of course, most good police will do the right thing regardless, but this law makes it very clear, and will help the courts avoid second-guessing when a few officers fail to do their duty.”

Connecticut became the first state to sign a similar bill into law June 28.

Jennifer Root Bannon, who testified in favor of the bill before the judiciary committee, lost her brother Juston Root three years ago after he was shot more than 30 times and killed by six police officers in Chestnut Hill. She said he had lived with schizoaffective disorder, at times suffered “manic episodes, delusions, and paranoia,” and had been seeking help at the Massachusetts Mental Health Center that morning.

“He had shown clear signs of mental distress,” she told the committee. Had police and security officers “been trained properly and conducted themselves as they should, medical help would have been summoned.”

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Selwyn Jones, the uncle of George Floyd, whose murder by Minneapolis police in 2020 inspired a global civil rights movement, is a strong supporter of the legislation and testified virtually that he “strongly believe[s] that the Medical Civil Rights Act will save thousands of lives and prevent future tragedies” like the ones he and his family experienced.

Tyre Nichols would be living, George Floyd would be living, Eric Garner would be living if this bill had been in effect,” he said in an interview with the Globe. “If we can get Massachusetts on board, I think it would open the door for all states to implement this act.”

The bill was first introduced in the Massachusetts Legislature in 2021, but did not make it out of committee. State Senator Jamie Eldridge, an Acton Democrat who chairs the committee, said he expects the bill to get “a lot more attention this session,” in part because of continued police shootings, particularly of people with mental health conditions.

A recent Globe analysis of police confrontations found that 51 out of the 88 people whom police officers shot in Massachusetts since 2016 were experiencing a mental health crisis or had been diagnosed with mental illness.

Grant said that, while the medical civil rights bill cannot bring her brother back, it will comfort her and other impacted families to know that something is being done.

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“My family has to live with it every day and, if Massachusetts passes this bill, it will give me some peace knowing my state is on the right side of history,” she said.


Zeina Mohammed can be reached at zeina.mohammed@globe.com. Follow her @_ZeinaMohammed.