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Univ. of San Diego School of Law

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Thursday, January 8, 2009

Survey: ER doctors suspect excessive police force

Nearly 98% of emergency room physicians report that they believe some patients were victims of suspected excessive force by police, a national survey concludes. Yet most of the suspected incidents went unreported because no laws require physicians to alert authorities.

The survey of 315 physicians, contained in the Emergency Medicine Journal's January issue and based on 2002 data, is believed to be the first doctors' account of suspected police brutality, says H. Range Hutson, the lead author and assistant professor of emergency medicine at Harvard.

The responses were based on interactions with patients who were brought in by police or who said officers caused their injuries. Ninety-five percent of the doctors reported injuries caused by fists and feet. Hutson says the survey and analysis of findings were in the works for years.

National police groups challenged the survey, saying it would be hard for physicians to know if injuries resulted from excessive force if they were not present during the encounters.

Unlike cases of suspected domestic violence, elderly abuse and child abuse, which doctors must report to authorities, physicians are not required to notify anyone of suspected excessive force by police, Hutson says.

The report says the findings suggest national emergency medicine groups and police should develop guidelines for "this complex issue."

Criminal justice analysts say the survey represents an important new source of information.

"Excessive force is a huge issue," says Geoff Alpert, a criminologist at the University of South Carolina.

"This is another angle on excessive force that hasn't been looked at."

Hutson says the survey does not necessarily mean abuse is rampant. [Marlk Godsey]

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