Sovereign Bodies

I’m the only doctor in my ER who stands up to cops.

Illustration: By Blacksneakers
Illustration: By Blacksneakers

She was loud, her insistent voice rising above the clamor in the ER. This day the department was full. Adults with chest pain. Children with rashes. Pregnant people with miscarriages threatened. The regulars who stopped by because, although it was only noon, they were already too drunk to walk home. Others requesting STD checks.

So the volume of her cries, and the fact that she was pacing her room, then heading to the hallway bathroom and back, then to the hallway sink and back, then the middle of the hallway to shout about someone in her neighborhood “who needs to get checked” — in language more colorful than that — was a lot for the moment. The range of her vocal projection was in stark contrast to her size. She was perhaps a couple inches taller than my five feet one inches, her waiflike frame accentuated by willowy cornrows that grazed the back of her knees when she walked. Her terra-cotta-colored skin was smooth, except for the bruising on her face.

No physician had signed up for her yet. My colleague — my white male colleague — should have. He and I were the only two doctors on duty. I had picked up the last three, and she’d make four. The unofficial rule is that we alternate, just like the merge system on a highway. It’s not a law; it’s basic civility that allows systems to flow more smoothly.

I scanned her chart: Vanessa Wells,* 19 years old. Head trauma from an assault. I began to understand the context for her anger. I saw that, per hospital protocol, her nurse had called the police at triage because she wanted to file a report.

“Get out! Get out of here!” a patient screamed. I could hear a man speaking to her in tones too low for me to discern individual words but stern enough to reveal the malice in his voice. The woman’s voice sounded like Ms. Wells but also different. This voice was trembling.

“What is that?” I asked.

I couldn’t be the only one to hear the shouts coming from the exam room. But the ER nurses in their station nearby remained sitting, some typing, others chatting. I looked at the doctor to my side, an ER physician like me. His eyes didn’t shift from his computer screen.

“Leave me alone!” pierced the air.

“Who is that? What is going on?” I repeated.

The patient’s nurse put down her soda just long enough to say, “Oh, that’s the head-trauma patient. The police are there for her report.” I looked toward Ms. Wells’s room but couldn’t see beyond the curtain.

“Christ! She’s your patient, right? Do you not want to check on her?” I asked her, horrified.

But she’d already returned her attention to her soda and slid back into silence. Not one person moved as each pretended the screams were at a pitch too high to hear. As if these were at decibels only at my register. Her cries stacked one on top of the other, reaching for breath. My own choked in my lungs.

I felt my body move, my walk giving way to a sprint. I marched into Ms. Wells’s room, leaving the curtain to swoosh closed behind me. The cop was to my right, blocking any exit Ms. Wells might have considered. She had climbed all the way to the back of the stretcher and gripped the sides of the mattress. There was nowhere for her to go: Her head was against the wall, her sneakered feet planted so firm in the bed I thought she might push a hole straight through. I could feel her terror.

I looked over my shoulder to see the rage in the cop’s eyes — directed first at her, then at me. His arms tightened on his vest. I stepped forward and placed my body between him and Ms. Wells. Slowly and with the solemn earnestness of last rites or Miranda rights — we would soon find out which — I began to speak. “I am Dr. Harper. I am her doctor.” I moved my eyes from the officer’s face down to his vest into whatever camera might be there. He saw me do it. I wanted him to see me do it. Then I continued to address him and the witnesses of the digital file. “I need you to leave this room now.”

Through clamped jaws he said, “I am here doing an investigation.” Ms. Wells, unassailable, reminded him: “I’m the one who called the police! I’m the one who was assaulted. Now you’re here harassing me?! GET OUT!”

I didn’t move. Despite the cop’s clenched fists bending his notepad in half, despite his flaring nostrils that seemed to suck all of the oxygen out of the room, I did not move. “I am doing an investigation,” he repeated.

Deliberately, as if each word was a boulder I had to maneuver from my back into just the right spot between us, I said: “Again, I am her doctor. I am taking care of this patient. I am the doctor in charge here. I need you to leave this room so that I can do what is needed and required to care for my patient.” I stood between them. I stood in front of his camera. I stood with my chin lifted 30 degrees to look him directly in his eyes. I did not avert my gaze.

Finally, he lowered his arms and took a step back. He paused, shifted again, then opened the curtain and left the room. I watched him exit the ER and made sure he was gone. Behind me I heard Ms. Wells wail. I approached her wilted body now convulsing in tears.

“Why he always gotta do this?! He comes around our neighborhood just to bother us. We never do anything and he always there! Always the same shit! It never stops!”

I breathed her words into my lungs, I felt her pain circulating in my cells.

She was right; who knew what this cop was capable of? Was he Frank Rizzo, the Philadelphia police commissioner turned mayor in 1972 who was an unrepentant bigot advocating for police brutality and the broad oppression of Black people?

Was he Police Commander Jon Burge in Chicago who, from 1972 to 1991, racially targeted and tortured more than 100 Black people in custody in ways that included electrocution, suffocation, rape, and false imprisonment?

Was he Ernest Marsalis, the Chicago police officer accused of more than 20 cases of abuse that included kidnapping and rape in just 16 months on the job?

Was he Officer Roger Magaña of Eugene, Oregon, who was convicted as a serial rapist in 2004?

Was he Officer Daniel Holtzclaw of Oklahoma City, who in 2014 was charged and later convicted of 18 counts of rape and sexual battery involving eight Black women he felt were from vulnerable populations?

Was he the brutal cop I witnessed over a decade ago when I was a resident physician working in the adult “Asthma Room”? As a consequence of environmental racism, the prevalence of asthma in the South Bronx was so high that we had two entire rooms in the ER reserved for it, one on the adult side of the ER and the other in the pediatric section. Each wall was lined with a row of chairs where patients could receive breathing treatments and other basic care. That day, the room was full but quiet. As I checked over some paperwork, I heard the skid of something being dragged, the rush of air forced from vinyl cushions, a muffled yelp between clinks of handcuffs being wriggled aside in an effort to protect fingers from being smashed against the armchairs’ metal rails.

I looked up to see a brawny white police officer pin down a petite Latina woman in his custody. His forearm across her neck pressed an already compromised airway, a chest that was already constricted from asthma. Gasping, I shouted, “STOP!” “Stop it! Stop it now!” Hearing me, he dropped the woman to the chair. I yelled because the patient was powerless and sick and chained to the chair even before the cop pinned her with his fists. And I shouted because he was a madman with a gun and a badge and a rage crushing her neck.

That day in the South Bronx ER, a Black male nurse, hearing my screams, came to check on me. I asked him to wait in the room and keep watch while I stepped out to report that officer to his supervisor. I was young and naïve and felt that my phone call would somehow lead to corrective action. I ran to the other side of the ER to a phone tucked away in the doctors’ alcove. With each button I pressed, I moved past thoughts that stating my name and location would lead to NYPD retaliation. I tried to convince myself of assurances regarding my personal safety that I couldn’t guarantee. The truth was that none of that mattered. When the officer at the police station answered the phone, I made the report because I knew that if I didn’t speak out, I’d go home with the knowledge that I had been one of the most dangerous types of citizens: one who bears witness and then does nothing.

Now, standing with Vanessa Wells, I knew the officer in the ER was all of those men and the countless others who are never held to account. I placed my hand on her forearm. “It’s okay. He’s gone for now. I’m not going to let him come back.” As she calmed down, I saw the bruising on her forehead and left eyelid, the scratch on her left scalp and the loosening of the braids in the area. A small patch of dried blood was on her lower lip where swelling bent her smile. She told me she had been punched and scratched by a friend of a friend. She thought she might have passed out when she was knocked down, but she didn’t remember.

I left her room and called the officer’s station. The person I spoke to took my report and said he would follow up, whatever that meant. I knew I had to at least try to get this abusive and otherwise unprofessional behavior documented.

After running back to see if my pregnant patient had finally gone for her ultrasound, peeking at my intoxicated patient to check whether he was finally waking up, and listening to my COPD patient’s lungs to find out whether his breath was flowing more freely, I returned to my desk.

My colleague fidgeted at his station. When he finally found his voice, he leaned over to whisper: “I think you should know that cop said he was going to arrest you for something like interfering with police work. He came back with his partner to the hallway, but then they left. I think they said they’re coming back with their sergeant.”

I looked at him, waiting. I saw him watching me, expecting me to recognize him as some kind of hero. I said no words in response to him; I left a pause to grant him the opportunity to do something helpful. But he did nothing. I looked past him to the rest of the ER. Brown-skinned me next to this white male doctor in a crowd of white nurses. He went back to his work, no longer fidgeting and still doing nothing.

I got myself ready. I walked to the ER director’s office to give her a heads-up. “So, turns out I might be on the news today,” I informed her and asked her to keep the video surveillance tapes. Back at my computer, I clicked through patients to tidy up their records so that if I was arrested, it would be relatively easy for another physician to take over. The same nurses worked quietly and now vigilantly as they waited for the officer to drag me out and throw me into a squad car.

Images of so many Black women who have been violated by police flashed through my mind. My stomach turned recalling the innumerable women the police had sexually assaulted. Studies show that sexual misconduct is second only to excessive force as crimes committed by police officers. It ranks second even though we know that sexual crimes by police are woefully underreported: After all, when the police rape you, the question of who to call becomes much more complicated.

If I was put into that police car, how would I return? Would I return at all? Maybe my life would be stolen, as had those of other Black women, Black babies, Black girls.

Rekia Boyd, 22 years old

Michelle Cusseaux, 50 years old

Aiyana Stanley-Jones, 7 years old

Kathryn Johnston, 92 years old

Yvette Smith, 47 years old

Tyisha Miller, 19 years old

Tanisha Anderson, 37 years old

Kayla Moore, 41 years old

Sandra Bland, 28 years old

Alberta Spruill, 57 years old

Miriam Carey, 34 years old

Shelly Frey, 27 years old

Shantel Davis, 23 years old

Kyam Livingston, 37 years old

Eleanor Bumpurs, 66 years old

Charleena Lyles, 30 years old

Mya Hall, 27 years old

Anna Brown, 29 years old

Breonna Taylor, 26 years old

I contemplated the countless other souls who, murdered by police and failed by legal systems that never intended justice or liberty or life, have been erased from history, left as agonizing gaps in time.

Within minutes, a tall Black man in a dark police uniform entered the department, followed by the two other officers who were here before. Only the deep creases of his cheeks hinted at his age. His steps were purposeful, his stride was long, he had to be at least six-foot-three. He had a face of stone that betrayed nothing. His eyes swept the department. “Is there a Dr. Harper here?”

At my desk, I motioned him over so that whatever was about to happen would occur in full view of everyone. If I was pulled out of this ER in handcuffs, at least there would be footage of it on the ER cameras. Catching my gesture, his eyes changed.

Have you ever seen a stone soften? From wind, from water, from time? Maybe from sensing a common experience — or perhaps from remembering the daughters, mothers, brothers who’ve worn this kindred skin?

Now at my side, he gently asked, “Doctor, is your patient Ms. Wells?”

I nodded. “Yes.”

“Do you still have work to do on her visit today?”

“Oh, yes. We’ve just started. She’s been injured. Head trauma. I have to do CTs, wait for the results, then reexamine her.”

He nodded. “Well, doctor, we don’t want to be in your way. I’ll just let her know that she can finish up her report later at the station if she likes.” He extended his hand to shake mine. “Thank you, doctor,” he said before collecting the two officers watching from the hallway, who followed him like sheep.

Why did he leave me alone? And why did he elect for a public display of deference? Was it because he looked like me or thought like me? Was it because he could tell I was a difficult woman so it wouldn’t be worth the paperwork or the statements to the press? Was it because he realized that his officer was wrong and that I was right or that Vanessa Wells has rights?

Whatever the reasons, the police sergeant and I placed our Black bodies on the line to obstruct brutality, as the white doctor and the white nurses sat and watched in silence. The apathy and cowardice evinced by my colleagues are exactly the reasons such brutality exists. Justice happens because of people like me and, at least in that moment, the sergeant. We acted in small ways that were enormous to Ms. Wells and to me. So during that hour, the officer who harassed Ms. Wells didn’t rape anyone. That hour, that particular police officer didn’t beat anyone. That hour, that particular police officer didn’t drag anyone to the floor and put his knee on her neck. That hour, that particular police officer didn’t murder anyone.

I don’t know if that cop was terminated from the force or if he’s committed other outrages. I don’t know if he’s ever been prosecuted. I do know that justice is more than saving one person from torture. Justice is accountability. Justice is policy in action. Justice is enforceable structural change. So while the sergeant and I did something good that day, I know it wasn’t anywhere close to enough.

*The patient’s name has been changed. 

Michele Harper has been an emergency room physician for more than a decade and is the author of the New York Times Bestselling memoir The Beauty in Breaking.

I’m the Only Doctor in My ER Who Stands Up to the Cops