Tired of being confused for law enforcement, Hennepin EMS paramedics will soon trade their trademark brown uniforms for blue ones "to better distinguish their role as emergency medical services."
The change, requested by Hennepin Healthcare, was made because some paramedics "didn't feel safe being perceived as law enforcement at a scene" during last year's mass protests over the police killing of George Floyd, said Mike Trullinger, a spokesman for Hennepin EMS. The agency is run by Hennepin Healthcare System, a subsidiary of the county that also operates HCMC and 10 clinics.
"Our current uniforms, the brown ones, they're pretty much an exact match for the Hennepin County sheriff's uniforms and, to some extent, State Patrol," Trullinger said. "If you're flying on an airline and the seats were found out to be super flammable, you'd want to change those seats."
For its new uniforms, the agency is ditching its brown-on-brown color scheme for an all-navy-blue get-up. Inside the agency, some paramedics say the new uniforms still resemble police garb. Others complained about tampering with decades of tradition behind the "UPS brown" uniforms.
Some of those frustrations surfaced last fall in an e-mail chain between paramedics and supervisors, shared with the Star Tribune.
One paramedic dismissed the uniform switch as a "PR stunt," writing: "It was made very clear what their intentions are and were when the CEO continually stated that we're essentially 'super scary looking' which in turn somehow turned us all into racists." The paramedic wrote they were tired of being a pawn in this "twisted game."
Another one said that the brown uniforms had stood the test of time, surviving "decades of trial, tribulation and unrest." "To have our history and traditions tossed to the side like so much laundry for a politically expedient and short lived result does no one any good. We're used to folks on the outside not understanding us, not our own hospital," he wrote.
But, Martin Scheerer, senior director of Hennepin EMS, wrote that he heard from employees who "felt they were literally in danger wearing the uniforms as they look too much like law enforcement" after the tense and sometimes violent protests that followed Floyd's death.
"Yes, it is expensive to change, but if we protect one life, one person from harm, one person who needs help and is not afraid to call 911 quickly, we all know it is worth it," he wrote.
The move comes amid renewed scrutiny on the relationship between public health and law enforcement. It comes nearly three years after a civil rights investigation found that Minneapolis police were sometimes urging paramedics to sedate people with ketamine, a revelation that sparked public outcry and ultimately played a role in the resignation of HCMC's chief executive.
The blue uniforms, set to roll out later this spring, are "an opportunity to evolve for our community," while recognizing that "recent events have highlighted a history of pain and distrust in the medical system that runs deep in some communities we serve," Hennepin Healthcare said last month in a newsletter to employees.
The hope is that the new look will also "better distinguish their role as emergency medical services" when paramedics show up at an emergency scene, said the health care company, which like others across the country has been financially weakened by the COVID-19 pandemic. Safety concerns increased last summer after a paramedic in uniform was confronted by a suspect with a knife in a downtown parking ramp, the company wrote.
Hennepin EMS is taking other precautions for the duration of ex-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin's murder trial — in which two paramedics are expected to testify — with a recent internal memo discouraging staff from wearing their uniform while traveling to and from work, and having protective gear at the ready if further unrest broke out. The agency is also interviewing paramedics to be part of a new "tactical EMS team" that would respond to more dangerous calls in tandem with police, according to internal communications.
County officials did not immediately provide data on how many paramedics were threatened or assaulted in 2020.
Outside of the color change, the new uniforms features neon stripes down the sides — with "Hennepin EMS Paramedic" in white letters on the back — and ditched the silver badges that paramedics wore for years, in favor of a patch with the agency's emblem.
Most in the agency see the badges, similar to those worn by police, as a symbol of public trust. In the past, retiring paramedics were presented with their badges as a gesture of appreciation for their service.
Shortly after announcing the change last fall, Hennepin Healthcare convened a work group to provide input on several temporary uniform designs until a permanent replacement could be found, according to the internal e-mails from last fall. In the ensuing backlash, some paramedics complained that their opinions were not taken seriously.
Though the final design hadn't yet been selected at the time, one paramedic wrote that hospital leadership should make actual — rather than cosmetic — fixes to address past harm inflicted on the community.
"The (Executive Leadership Team) is coming in with the same colonial/conquistador like mentality that it seems they are trying to claim they are fighting against," one paramedic wrote in chain of e-mails. "If you want to repair community relations you need to build up this department, not tear down symbols of excellence from our past."
Another wrote that paramedics for other agencies like Allina Health and North Memorial, who wear white tops, have also reported run-ins with people who took them for police officers.
"As far as safety goes, I have been told that we look like cops and are therefore in danger of being mistaken for and attacked as cops," he wrote. "Having the opportunity to speak with street medics from Allina, and (North Memorial) several medics from those services have informed me that they too have been mistaken for police when they obviously do not look the part."
Getting rid of the brown uniforms "would be to forget the rich history — good and bad of Hennepin — in a PR stunt," he wrote.
"Our uniform has been around for decades, currently we are literally the polar opposite of what MPD looks like! They are baby blue, we're UPS brown!" someone else wrote. "We can't look any less like a cop than now."
One man, who identified himself as a 40-year veteran of the agency, agreed that the brown uniforms made him look like law enforcement, but said that it sometimes bought him time to calm someone down at a tense scene.
Any changes to the uniforms should have been approached "carefully and with much thought," he said.
Instead, he wrote, "the lack of information as to how and why these changes were being made and why there seems to be the sudden rush to change fostered an unnecessary distrust of what was happening."
Scheerer, the Hennepin EMS director, wrote that he understood why some might be upset over the uniform change.
But, he said: "The world has changed and we need to adapt to the changing environment we work in. Many have talked about our 125 years of tradition and that we should not change due to tradition, well, we have changed uniforms, along with equipment, methods, and training many times in those 125 years."
"Uniforms do not define who we are," he wrote, "the people and your actions define us."
Libor Jany • 612-673-4064