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Helping assaulted first responders during legal prosecutions

Posted: Nov. 14, 2019

New study provides recommendations that address common obstacles to the legal prosecution of first responder assault cases

Occupational violence against firefighters and emergency medical services (EMS) workers is widespread. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that about 3,500 EMS workers received hospital treatment in 2017 for injuries resulting from work-related violence.

The U.S. Fire Administration documented the causes of violence to firefighters and first responders in the 2017 guide, Mitigation of Occupational Violence to Firefighters and EMS Responders PDF 2.5 MB. More than half and sometimes as many as 93% of EMS responders reported that they had experienced verbal or physical violence at least once in their careers.

Another study in 2016 PDF 401 KB that captured interviews and focus groups with first responders injured in assaults found that many believed their attackers do not face real consequences in the judicial system for their actions. Even where state statutes define EMS as belonging to a “protected class” and assaults are subsequently charged as a felony, convictions are rare.

Seeking to explore the theme of first responder dissatisfaction with the prosecutorial process, a group of researchers looked at how first responder assault cases that come before the Philadelphia District Attorney's office are processed. Pennsylvania has a felonious assault statute to address such violence.

Research findings: common hindrances to prosecution

  1. Intent to cause bodily harm may be difficult to prove. If a patient becomes violent but has a mental illness, drug or alcohol intoxication, or some other medical condition, it may be difficult for the prosecutor to prove they intended to hurt the first responder. If there was no weapon or premeditation involved, then a felony charge is unlikely.
  2. A responder's level of investment may be insufficient. It may be difficult for a first responder to dedicate the time needed for court appearances. Their absences cause prosecutors to feel the case is not important.
  3. Some responders aren't prepared to testify in court. Responders may not be as familiar with the judicial process as prosecutors and judges think they are. Preparation before testifying in court is critical to get a satisfying outcome for the victim.
  4. Judicial sentencing discretion. Some judges may be influenced by a belief that violence against responders is just “a part of the job.” They may also be lenient on an offender since a felony conviction can have life-altering consequences. If a first-time offender appears to be someone who can be rehabilitated, that also makes a felony conviction a less desirable outcome.

Recommendations

  • Educate judges and attorneys that violence against first responders is not part of the job or something they signed up for. Explain how the violence has impacted the individual physically and psychologically.
  • Develop education and training to prepare assaulted responders for their court appearances. The district attorney's office, fire department management, and labor unions need to collaborate to make this happen.
  • Have a leave policy that supports the injured responder and makes it less difficult to prepare for and make multiple court appearances.
Our focus should remain on finding ways to prevent violence against EMS responders but these recommendations may go a long way towards making them feel protected and valued by the justice system.

Learn more about this research

Summary information for this article was provided by the NETC Library. Read the research paper.

Wright, J., Davis, A., Brandt-Rauf, S., Taylor, J. (2019). “Felony assault should stick:” assaulted EMS responders' frustration and dissatisfaction with the legal system. American Journal of Industrial Medicine: 16 August 2019.

This summary is for informational purposes only. As such, the content does not reflect any official positions, policies or guidelines on behalf of the sender, the U.S. Fire Administration, Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Department of Homeland Security, nor any other federal agencies, departments or contracting entities. Similarly, this summary does not represent in any manner an official endorsement or relationship to any private or public companies, organizations/associations, or any authors or individuals cited or websites associated within the article.

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