TAMPA - The death of a diabetic man Wednesday after he was handcuffed by Tampa police raises questions about the training law enforcement officers receive to spot symptoms of a disease that affects nearly 26 million Americans.
Officers in Tampa are trained in recognizing possible medical emergencies, police said, and it was an officer at the scene who made the decision to get the handcuffs off Arthur Green Jr. The 63-year-old Tampa man had become combative during a traffic stop that was made after reports he was seen driving erratically, police said.
Green stopped breathing and later died at a Tampa hospital.
Two investigations within the department are under way, said police spokeswoman Laura McElroy — one by internal affairs and one because of the use of force in the incident. Both officers took Thursday off and will return to regular duty.
Distinguishing between an inebriated or combative person and someone in a diabetic seizure can be difficult for officers who have to make snap decisions in seconds, experts say.
Many law enforcement agencies don’t offer the right training, even though diabetics are in every community, said staff attorney Katharine Gordon with the American Diabetes Association in Washington, D.C.
“I would say that it is a problem because there isn’t consistent training across the country,” Gordon said. “There are no requirements for training and that makes it a challenge. Some departments are very good about training, but many have no knowledge of what diabetes is, what an emergency looks like and how police officers can correctly determine if there is a medical emergency and what can be done.”
In 2007, the American Diabetes Association published a 20-minute training video for law enforcement officers, but few departments have made use of it, she said.
“Each year we receive dozens of calls from people mistreated because of a lack of understanding of diabetes. We are very concerned.”
Tampa police officers get training, spokeswoman McElroy said, though she didn’t know if it includes the video.
Police gave this account of Green’s death:
About 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, police received a report of a man driving erratically on Central Avenue in Seminole Heights.
“The call was of a wild driver going up on the sidewalk, stopping and starting his car,” McElroy said. “We got several calls saying there was a crazy driver.”
Officer Tony Portman was first to arrive.
“The first thing he sees is the car going south on Central and serving into the northbound lane,” McElroy said. “Two vehicles swerved away, but he still sideswiped them.”
No one was injured in the incident, on Central near Idlewild Avenue.
Portman believed the driver’s actions were deliberate and the officer ran to the car. He ordered Green, of 3406 Avon St., to hand over the keys and get out of the car.
“The driver said, ‘I didn’t do anything, leave me alone. Why are you bothering me?’ ” McElroy said.
Portman opened the door and tried to pull Green from the car. Green resisted. He shoved and struggled with the officer and Portman put out an officer-in-distress call, a more pressing alert than a simple call for backup.
“This guy was so combative, so physical,” McElroy said. “He wasn’t punching, but he was struggling with the officer and that officer needed help right away to gain control of the driver.”
Officer Matt Smith pulled up and the two lawmen managed to get handcuffs on Green.
Smith, who has a relative with diabetes, recognized the symptoms and suggested Green may be in a medical emergency. Typically, diabetics wear bracelets to identify themselves in the event of a seizure. Green did not, McElroy said, and he did not tell officers he had diabetes.
The handcuffs were removed and the officers called for Tampa Fire Rescue.
At that point, Green stopped breathing, McElroy said.
Paramedics arrived and resuscitated Green. He had a faint pulse as he was taken to St. Joseph’s Hospital, where he later was pronounced dead.
Green has no criminal history in Florida and one speeding ticket — driving 31 mph in a 15 mph zone 10 years ago.
He suffered from severe hypoglycemia, though the conclusions of an autopsy were not available Thursday. Tampa Fire Rescue reported it had responded to Green’s home on April 11 and Feb. 17 for diabetes-related emergencies.
Green’s family — including his wife, Tampa Heights community activist Lena Young Green — declined to comment on the incident Thursday.
Neither Portman nor Smith have excessive use of force issues in their personnel files. Neither officer was injured.
Two investigations within the department are underway, McElroy said — one by internal affairs and one because of the use of force in the incident. Both officers took Thursday off, McElroy said, and will return to regular duty.
“All indications are they followed the normal protocol,” she said. “They were emotional at the scene. You become a police officer to help people and they both were very upset they couldn’t help this man.”