A man shot through the stomach lies beside the tire of his car at a gas station, bleeding through his shirt. Someone calls 911 and a storm of sirens and flashing lights rush to the scene. Through a red fog, the man stares at his blood-soaked clothes before he hears wheels screeching to a halt in front of him, the slamming of car doors, and the clacking of black boots against the pavement. His gaze moves upwards to blue uniforms, handcuffs, guns in holsters, and the golden glint of badges. Questions urgently rain down upon him. “What happened?” “Who shot you?” “Where did this happen?” “EMS is on its way,” one of the voices reassures him, before continuing to ask, “Now, can you describe the guy who shot you?” Do these voices belong to “police,” or to “first responders”?
The Supreme Court’s answer last year in Michigan v. Bryant was simple— both. In Bryant, officers questioned the victim about his shooter’s identity until paramedics arrived, and the answers they elicited became crucial to prosecuting the shooter when the victim died hours later and was thus unable to identify the shooter in court. The Court stated that the officers who arrived at the gas station were both law enforcement (police) and the first to respond to the emergency (first responders). The Court also suggested that, on these facts, the officers’ conduct most resembled that of public servants “responding” to “what they perceived to be an ongoing emergency” in circumstances that “lacked any formality” rather than that of police interrogating witnesses with the goal of ensnaring a criminal. But what could be viewed as an unremarkable statement of fact—that members of law enforcement function both as police and first responders—becomes more curious in light of the fact that this is the first time that the Supreme Court has ever called law enforcement personnel “first responders” in a published opinion.
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