Unsafe at Any Speed

Lights flashing, the vehicle sped toward the intersection, hurrying to an emergency call. But approaching fast from a side street came another car, this one driven by a seventeen-year-old about to run a stop sign.

The two vehicles collided not in Denver, but in Grand Junction on December 28, 1993.

The teenager driving the car was not seventeen-year-old Gil Webb Jr., but Logan Chamberlain III.

And the driver of the official vehicle going well over 50 miles per hour was not a Denver police officer, but a paramedic--the same paramedic who responded to the scene of an accident at 19th Avenue and Federal Boulevard on March 26, 1997. Officer Ron DeHerrera, a rookie on his second day with the Denver Police Department, had been grievously injured in the wreck; paramedics Tom J. Davis and Mark Price took care of the cop before they turned their attentions to the alleged driver of the car that had hit him: Gil Webb Jr.

Davis was fired by the city last Thursday. "Denver Health has completed its internal investigation of how Denver Health paramedics handled the emergency care of Gil Webb Jr.," announced Dr. Patricia Gabow, medical director. "Although Mr. Webb's reported injury is consistent with the high-speed crash in which he was involved--not his handling by paramedics--we have concluded from our investigation that his treatment was not entirely consistent with the standards expected of Denver paramedics. Accordingly, we have taken appropriate personnel action."

And they have taken that action before the Jefferson County District Attorney's investigation into the incident is anywhere close to complete. Or, for that matter, before numerous other probes inspired by police and paramedic behavior are concluded. Jeffco DA Dave Thomas--brought in as a special prosecutor by Denver DA Bill Ritter, since Denver had already filed charges against Gil Webb Jr. when questions concerning his care blew up in the press--only this week picked up pertinent Denver Health medical records (their release delayed by attorneys, as if you couldn't guess). Jeffco's investigation won't be finished for at least another week.

The paramedics, a Police Protective Association spokesman complained to reporters, "are being judged before they've been tried."

And Davis knows what it's like to be tried.
Davis had been working for Premier, a Grand Junction-based ambulance company, for almost three years when he answered an emergency call three days after Christmas 1993. He was driving his ambulance north up a busy street, lights and siren going, when he crashed into a car that had run a stop sign. That car's passenger, seventeen-year-old Clinton Porter, suffered a head injury in the wreck and lay in a coma for six months. The car's driver, Logan Chamberlain III, was ticketed for running a stop sign and for failing to yield the right of way.

But the paramedic himself was charged with vehicular assault, reckless driving and careless driving resulting in serious bodily injury.

After the accident, Davis moved to Denver and ultimately got a job at Denver Health. He was back in Mesa County, though, for a three-day criminal trial in early January 1995. Davis "focused on getting there as fast as he could, not on the safety of others," Mesa County Deputy District Attorney Martha Kent argued in her closing. "Sometimes saying you are sorry isn't enough. We all want our ambulance drivers to get to calls quickly, but not at this risk. He created a substantial risk to the community, and Clint Porter is the one who suffered the consequences."

The jury found Davis not guilty on all counts. One juror said his behavior was "exemplary, beyond reproach."

Since he was acquitted, the accident does not appear on Davis's driving record.

Davis was "seriously overcharged," recalls Tom LaCroix, the Grand Junction attorney who represented him at trial. Not only was his client a "highly respected" paramedic, but Davis saved the life of one of the boys injured in that accident, LaCroix says. And if Chamberlain hadn't run the stop sign in the first place, the ambulance would never have hit that car. But these days, the attorney adds, "people don't respect police cars, authority, the way they used to."

Early on the morning of March 26, a police car was speeding north on Federal Boulevard, going about 56 miles an hour, according to Lieutenant Robert Rock, who re-created the scene for the DPD's traffic investigations bureau. A stolen Mustang heading west on 19th Avenue was going just under that speed--by Rock's estimate, about 48 miles per hour--when it ran a stop sign at Federal. The two cars collided in the intersection.

Cops and paramedics were quick to arrive at the scene. So was a Channel 2 cameraman, who captured much of the action on what was to become an immensely controversial videotape. Most of the footage--like the city's attention--was focused on the mortally wounded DeHerrera; he would die from his injuries six days later. Almost unnoticed was a later part of the tape, which showed the paramedics giving Webb some very special treatment.

Price and Davis threw Webb onto the gurney. They threw him there not once, but twice--neither time gently. Webb was not kicked in the head by a cop, as has been alleged; his neck was not twisted like a chicken bone, as his lawyer told reporters. Still, what the videotape caught was hardly handling with care.

After the complete tape surfaced, what the city caught was plenty of grief. Ritter quickly turned the matter over to Jeffco for investigation. Anne Sulton, Webb's attorney, called on Janet Reno to have the Department of Justice investigate whether her client had been brutalized, his civil rights violated. (Even if Webb's neck was broken in the crash and not by subsequent mistreatment, Sulton says, that treatment was inappropriate.) The Denver Police Department launched its own internal investigation. So did Denver Health.

Denver Health was the first to finish. And with uncharacteristic firmness for a city agency bound by byzantine bureaucracy, it showed Davis the door last week.

What inspired Denver Health's speedy move is part of personnel records and so not open to the public (or the press)--unless Davis appeals his firing, as his lawyer says he will. Price, who was suspended for two weeks, is already back at work. On Tuesday the paramedics' union protested Denver Health's disciplinary action, arguing that Price and Davis behaved appropriately given the "combative" patient's "uncooperativeness."

"The actions of the paramedics were different and warranted different personnel actions," is about all Denver Health spokeswoman C.L. Harmer will say, although she adds that what motivated her agency's investigation was not publicity, but simply "good medicine."

John Wyckoff, spokesman for the Police Protective Association, begs to differ--and not gently. "They might as well tell people to open the checkbook," he says of Denver Health. "Because of the nature of people's professions, they aren't given a chance. We've witnessed a rush to judgment." But the PPA has also rushed into action, starting a defense fund for Price and Davis. Ultimately, Wyckoff says, the PPA would like the paramedics program moved out of Denver Health and under the control of Denver firefighters, a move proposed last year by some paramedics and firefighters but blocked by the city.

"For a group of people supposedly out there to help the community at large," Wyckoff says, "those paramedics do a great job. I think we have the best product in the country. If people only knew."

If people only knew.
Full speed ahead to the full story.

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Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun