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Trigger warning: Police brutality, ableism
In some medical emergencies, the police are the first responders, rather than paramedics or firefighters. For one man experiencing a diabetic episode this past January in San Antonio, Texas, his first responders did more harm than good.
Thomas Mathieu, who is 70 years old, recognized that the symptoms he was experiencing while he was driving meant a diabetic episode was imminent on January 13th, 2014. He claims he stopped his vehicle four-five feet from the curb in the right turn lane on Evers approaching the 410 access road because he knew he could become a danger to others, which seems like the responsible thing to do, given the circumstances.
According to video footage from the police vehicle that arrived shortly after he stopped and passed out, the officers who arrived assumed that he was intoxicated and refusing to cooperate. He was admitted to the hospital with three broken ribs and injuries to his face, head, and arms. He developed pneumonia while hospitalized (likely due to inhaling dirt during the police encounter). Mathieu says he doesn’t remember anything until he woke up with his face on the ground.
When an unconscious Mathieu refused to exit the police vehicle, one of the officers punched him repeatedly in the head before finally yanking him out onto the ground. The officers question the clearly disoriented Mathieu, who denied drinking. They threaten to use a taser on him before finally determining that he was having a diabetic episode.
Despite the claims of the San Antonio chief of police that the officers had received extensive training in recognizing a diabetic episode, the first responders to this medical emergency took more than five minutes to realize it was, in fact, a medical situation and a not a matter of someone driving under the influence.
Although video footage from the cruisers and statements from the officers involved confirm that Mathieu was punched and dragged from his vehicle, an internal investigation found that there was no wrongdoing or use of excessive force on the part of the responding officers. The officer who punched Mathieu claims he saw Mathieu reach for the gearshift to engage the vehicle and drive off. Because their primary focus had to be removing him from the vehicle at that point, their actions were not ultimately deemed inappropriate.
Mathieu was clearly in such a state that he was unable to coherently explain to the first responders that he was in need of immediate medical assistance. Because they interpreted that inability as intoxication, they treated a sick man like a violent criminal. Even those who are intoxicated or possibly breaking the law deserve to be treated with compassion and to be protected from physical assault unless they are actually endangering others or themselves with their actions. This form of profiling is concerning not only for people with diabetes, but also a range of debilitating conditions.
If a person is incapable of responding verbally or immediately complying, it does not necessarily mean that they are drunk. They could be non-verbal. They could suffer from crippling social anxiety and not be able to speak or move in moments of intense pressure due to PTSD. They could be suffering from a stroke or a heart attack. Or, like Thomas Mathieu, they could be having a diabetic episode, a medical emergency that over 29 million Americans are at risk of experiencing.
Although the case has theoretically been closed on this incident, there are still people fighting for justice and better education and training to prevent something like this from happening again. You can help by signing this petition to officials in San Antonio, which request a full investigation of the officers involved and training to ensure that officers treat those suffering from either medical conditions or intoxication with compassion.