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US police slammed for injecting arrestees with ketamine

Published: (Updated: ) in Australian News by .

Police stopped Elijah McClain on the street in suburban Denver last year after deeming the young black man suspicious.

Police stopped Elijah McClain on the street in suburban Denver last year after deeming the young black man suspicious.

He was thrown into a chokehold, threatened with a dog and stun gun, then subjected to another law enforcement tool before he died: a drug called ketamine.

Paramedics inject it into people like Mr McClain as a sedative, often at the behest of police who believe suspects are out of control.

Officially, ketamine is used in emergencies when there's a safety concern for medical staff or the patient.

But it's increasingly found in arrests and has become another flashpoint in the debate over law enforcement policies and brutality against people of colour.

How hospitalisations and deaths have resulted

An analysis by The Associated Press of policies on ketamine and cases where the drug was used during police encounters uncovered a lack of police training, conflicting medical standards and nonexistent protocols that have resulted in hospitalisations and even deaths.

On Monday, it will have been a year since Mr McClain, 23, was stopped by officers responding to a 911 call about a suspicious person wearing a ski mask and waving his arms.

Police put him in a chokehold twice and multiple officers pressed their body weight into him.

Paramedics were called and injected Mr McClain with ketamine, but they incorrectly estimated his weight, giving him more than 1.5 times the dose he should have received. He got 500mg, but he should have received 315mg.

Mr McClain suffered cardiac arrest, was later declared brain dead and taken off life support.

"The case where somebody's got six officers on them, in a chokehold, and needs ketamine is really pretty exceptional," Dr George Lindbeck, chairman of the National Association of State EMS Officials medical director's council said.

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"That just doesn't happen very often… The vast majority of these scenarios get managed at a much lower level with much less physical restraint, no need for chemical restraint or sedation."

After McClain's death, Colorado's health department opened an investigation into the growing use of ketamine, first approved for use in 2013, after the case got new attention during nationwide protests seeking police reform.

No federal standards exist

There are no federal standards for law enforcement or emergency medical personnel on the drug's use.

State policies and reporting requirements vary, so it's not clear how regularly it's used during police encounters and why.

Most states and agencies say ketamine may be administered when someone exhibits "excited delirium" or agitation, which is typically associated with chronic drug abuse, mental illness or both.

The drug sedates them, is supposed to have limited side effects and isn't intended to make someone lose consciousness.

Medical professionals say excited delirium is a "wastebasket term" and has no standard definition.

The commonly cited characteristics include superhuman strength, imperviousness to pain and wild, uncontrollable behavior, Dr Paul S. Appelbaum, director of the Division of Law, Ethics & Psychiatry at Columbia University, said.

"It's not at all clear that these people are delirious," he said.

"Moreover, it seems pretty clear that they're not all one thing, that this term tends to be applied out in the field by police who are certainly not expert in diagnosis of neuropsychiatric syndromes."

Police lack necessary training

Police are not trained on diagnosing any medical conditions, but most know first aid and CPR.

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Every police agency has different criteria for calling in paramedics, according to Jimmy Holderfield, secretary for the National Fraternal Order of Police.

"The best rule of thumb to apply here is what a 'prudent and reasonable' person would do," Mr Holderfield said by email.

"Officers are charged with the duty of protecting lives and property."

Emergency medical personnel administer ketamine when they believe it's necessary, police say.

But there's growing concern over whether officers are too involved in the decision and conflicting medical opinions on using it during arrests.

Chris Burbank, vice president of law enforcement strategy for the Center for Policing Equity and a former Salt Lake City police chief is suspicious of the explanations for using it.

"I always go back to why are we doing the business that we're doing," Mr Burbank said.

"This goes to traffic stops, this goes to pedestrian stops, this goes to search and seizure. There's not a need for some of these things."

There were 902 reported instances of Colorado paramedics administering ketamine from 2018 to 2020, and almost 17 per cent had complications, including cardiac arrest and oxygen deprivation, the state health department said.

In other states, police were found to take part in the decision to use the drug. In Minneapolis, a report conducted by the Office of Police Conduct Review found eight of those cases between 2016 and 2018, ranging from officers requesting paramedics use the drug to emergency medical workers asking officers for their opinions on sedating someone.

The report concluded that the lack of uniform policy on how police should interact with paramedics meant cops could potentially interfere in medical decisions.

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"Even if it's a homicide suspect, we would guard that person, but we don't get in the middle — nor should we — of how that person is treated for their injuries or crisis, whatever it may be that the doctor or paramedics deem appropriate to treat this person," Mr Burbank said.

Source: 9News

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