CN: Police awfulness and mistreatment of a vulnerable person, intoxication, bodily injury.
A few years ago, when I was newer to my working-class Chicago neighborhood, I was walking along one of the busier streets in the early evening in nice weather. There were a lot of people out and about, going about their business. This neighborhood is the kind of place with a lot of small liquor stores and few grocery stores, but a fairly low rate of violent crime. The barber shop on the corner contains conversations in at least four languages at any given time, and the public high school that dominates the immediate area seems rowdy, but not violent.
As I headed down a block on one of the main roads I came upon an older brown-skinned man laying on the sidewalk, curled into a near fetal position. Several other people passed him, not unconcerned, but looking like they didn’t know what to do. He was right in the middle of the busy sidewalk, not tucked away as if he was sleeping intentionally. I stopped, knelt next to him, and asked if he was okay. I saw pretty quickly there was a mark on his face, like a bruise with a cut in the middle near his forehead. I thought maybe he’d gotten hit in the head.
He couldn’t tell me if he was okay or not, and we went back and forth a few times with me asking questions and him mumbling at me. I’m no doctor, so I couldn’t tell if the problem was concussion, intoxication, language barrier, or a combination of factors. I could only tell that he wasn’t okay. I finally asked “Ambulance?” and he responded “Yes.”
I called 911, told the operator what I knew and where we were. They assured me help would be on the way and ended the call. The guy was moving, but not with any real intention to get up, and I put the jacket I was wearing around my waist under his head so his head wouldn’t be resting on concrete. I stayed with him, waiting, talking to him but not getting much in the way of coherent response. I assured the many people who stopped to ask if we needed help that I had it under control.
Up until this point things really went the way I expected them to in a situation like this. I’ve taken a lot of first aid and CPR classes, I’ve helped in a few non-life-threatening medical emergencies, and I felt nervous for the guy but confident in my decision making.
Then the Chicago Police Department showed up. Two officers in an SUV pulled up to the curb and strolled over. I began to tell them what I knew and was interrupted. “Nah, don’t worry about him, he’s one of our regular drunks,” I was told. Still worried I mentioned that it looked like he’d hit his head, but the officer didn’t seem concerned. She did not kneel to check on him, speak to him, or in any way treat this man as a human being. I was told no, she did not need anything else from me. They had it from here. I mentioned my jacket and she said “If you want it back, bleach it. It’ll have lice.” I left it (not because of lice, but because I wasn’t about to take it out from under his head), uncertainly walking away, confused and angry about what had just happened. From half a block away I watched for a moment as one officer talked into her radio and the other went back to the SUV. Neither had actually looked at the man, or spoken to him.
I left, heading home since I now didn’t have a jacket. I tweeted in frustration at the dehumanization I’d just witnessed. I know that dealing with the same people over and over, behaving in ways we would rather they didn’t, is frustrating. I have to do it at my job too. But I don’t see that as an excuse not to at least go through the process of assessing the man for injuries and treating him like a person.
I said “I wish I could have had someone else to call.”
I had honestly not anticipated that the only response to what I considered a medical emergency would be a squad car and police. I knew that police respond to medical calls, but I hadn’t considered that risk when I called. I’m terrified that man got arrested instead of treated. I suspect my decision to call 911 did not help this man’s life, but may in fact have made it worse.
I know he survived, because I’ve seen him many times in the neighborhood since then, though he hasn’t shown any sign of recognizing me. I know which liquor store he frequents and which other men in the neighborhood he is usually with. I don’t know if he has a home, but if he does it’s almost certainly within a few blocks of mine.
Yet, if I were to find him, or someone like him, in a similar situation in the future, what could I do? I don’t want to keep walking, like the people before me did. I don’t want to call authorities that will show up and treat this man like a nuance to be removed, rather than a human being in need of help. I don’t have the training or resources to help him directly myself.
I want someone else to call. I wish there was a way to reach medical assistance without the threat of armed and uniformed people with a reputation for unnecessary violence showing up. I wish I could contact social services directly to ask them to intervene and reach out to someone who so clearly would benefit from help I cannot provide.
I do know that if I do have to call 911 in the future I will be mentally prepared for the arrival of unempathetic people with guns. I will take their likely arrival into consideration before calling. If they do show up, I will get the encounter on camera and I will stay and record until they leave. I will hold them accountable for their behavior.
I just wish I had someone else I could call.