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SAPD Didn't Immediately Give First Aid After Shooting A Man. A State Bill May Prevent That From Happening Again

Courtesy of Celeste Brown
Darrell Zemault Sr. was a father, a grandfather, an excellent cook with an eclectic palate, and "the love of the West Side," according to friends and family.

Just over six months ago, San Antonio police officers shot Darrell Zemault Sr. while attempting to execute an arrest warrant. A video obtained by Texas Public Radio showed officers standing around his motionless body for more than one minute.

Celeste Brown, who described Zemault as a “second father,” said she found the officers’ response “infuriating.”

"We're talking about a matter of life and death, right?" she said. "If pressure was applied to the wound, he could still be here."

About four months before SAPD killed Zemault, a Minneapolis police officer knelt on George Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes during an arrest. Floyd’s painful, preventable killing led to loud calls for police reforms across the country, from city halls to Capitol Hill.

Now, a group of Texas state lawmakers wants to pass a bill named after Floyd.

Among a set of sweeping reforms, one provision would require that officers “provide aid immediately to any person who needs medical attention, including a person who needs medical attention as a result of the use of force by a peace officer.” In many Texas cities — including San Antonio — police officers receive regular first aid training, but department policies don’t lay out a specific timeline for officers to apply aid after they shoot someone.

The Homeland Security and Public Safety Subcommittee of the Texas House of Representatives discussed the bill on Thursday. Celeste Brown spoke publicly for the first time since viewing the footage of Zemault’s killing.

“There is no reason that families that have lost loved ones to police violence should have to rehash our trauma to help you see those that are harmed by our police systems as human,” she told lawmakers in Austin. “I should not be here today. The other families that are here should not be here today. But we must. And so I would like to, for a second, ask you all to empathize and to humanize those that have been harmed by police violence.”

HB 88, or the “George Floyd Act,” doesn’t just tackle first aid. The proposed law would also require police to intervene when they see another officer engage in abusive behavior. It would prohibit chokeholds, set out a more narrow scope of acceptable uses of force, and — in a major change to individual officers’ usual qualified immunity — allow people to sue officers who “deprived the person of or caused the person to be deprived of a right, privilege, or immunity secured by the Texas Constitution.”

A powerful coalition of politicians, community organizations and advocates back the bill, but the proposed legislation, as currently written, is likely to face a steep, uphill battle in the Republican-controlled legislature if it makes it out of committee. Multiple police organizations have voiced intense opposition to changes to qualified immunity, which shields individual officers from being sued in most cases.

Brown spoke after most police representatives had already testified.

“When I was listening to law enforcement officials speak, they were saying that qualified immunity may affect the lives and families of police officers,” she said. “What about the family where grandchildren will grow up without their grandfather? What about the family that buried their mother in 2016, and now had to bury a father in 2020? I urge you to look at this as beyond partisanship.”

Rep. Senfronia Thompson, who authored HB 88, said the reforms address something her conservative colleagues frequently talk about: “the sanctity of life.”

“George Floyd wasn’t the first person to be brutalized and murdered by police officers and our criminal justice system, and he won't be the last if the state doesn't do something to correct that problem,” she said.

The proposed law also calls for a stricter “disciplinary matrix” than the one that currently exists in San Antonio, where the local police union has become one of the most powerful in the country — and the most successful at getting fired officers rehired.

San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg — who faces an election in May — has called for a more rigorous disciplinary process, although he has also expressed support for the police union’s right to continue collective bargaining. His office did not respond to a question about his stance on the George Floyd Act or to a question about whether he would support a first aid requirement at the local level.

SAPD referred TPR to the City of San Antonio for comment on the proposed law, and a spokesperson said the city is focused on four different bills: HB 1087, HB 1561, HB 1563 and HB 1940, which, altogether, would change disciplinary timelines and processes, make it easier for local candidates to become police officers and allow the public to more easily access personnel records.

In a written statement, the spokesperson said, “Additionally, the City supports immediately rendering first aid. Current SAPD General Manual addresses providing medical treatment.”

But SAPD policy doesn’t actually mandate a specific timeline for officers to apply first aid after they shoot someone, and the bills supported by the city wouldn’t change that. The spokesperson did not respond to a followup question about whether the city would support a change in first aid policy at the local level.

According to Sharmila Dissanaike — chair of surgery at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center and the chief of surgery at University Medical Center in Lubbock — timely first aid is vital in all bleeding emergencies.

“If someone is bleeding to death, then every second matters,” she said. “And the quicker we can get control of bleeding, the better the chances of that person living. So, literally every second matters.”

Dominic Anthony Walsh can be reached at Dominic@TPR.org and on Twitter at @_DominicAnthony