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Tasers: What Police and Media Aren't Saying

A month after The Tyee was first to report a Taser-related death in custody, VPD Chief Graham and media offered a late, garbled look at the issues. The new provincial inquiry needs to look hard at 'excited delirium.'

Dee Hon 6 Aug
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Three months have passed since Roman Andreichikov died in the hands of Vancouver police. The Tyee was alone in exploring what happened. The 25-year-old's heart stopped beating after police shot him with an electric stun gun then pinned him to the floor of his Granville street apartment. Since then another man, 54 year-old Robert Bagnell, died in similar fashion in his home just a few blocks away.

The deaths of these two men, and those of other British Columbians before them, raise pressing questions. Why did they die, and what should be done to keep others from a similar fate? To this date, few people are asking the appropriate questions.

Now comes the announcement of a provincial investigation into the Vancouver Police Department's use of Tasers. Victoria's police chief will head the inquiry because, says B.C. Police Complaints Commissioner Dirk Ryneveld, the Vancouver department's delays in disclosing information create "an adverse perception of the ability of the VPD to conduct an impartial investigation."

Ryneveld raises the very concern The Tyee pointed to in its June 25 article, saying "I believe the use of the Taser may have saved lives, but there may also be a category of individuals, those on drugs, whose adrenaline is already pumping, that just can't take 50 volts of electricity."

Ryneveld is referring to a state known as "excited delirium," the central focus of the Tyee's article, though glossed over by other media until now.

The provincial inquiry, independent from the VDP and delving into the dangerous complexities of arresting and controlling suspects suffering so-called 'excited delirium, is badly needed.

Especially because major media outlets, when they finally have examined these in-custody deaths, have remain fixated on questioning the Taser gun's safety, and ignore other factors that may be involved. Publicly, police brass spend more time defending their use of the weapons than re-evaluating how officers deal with mental-health emergencies. Is it any wonder then, that people keep dying in police custody?

'Excited delirium' underplayed

Medical experts assert that a complex phenomenon known as excited delirium may be what's really responsible for the deaths of Andreichikov and Bagnell - as well as hundreds or thousands of others. But while the media overlook this factor, police forces use excited delirium as a crutch; ignoring their own role when people die in their hands.

Our society routinely demands our police to make snap decisions of life or death importance. Yet we collectively fail to ask the proper questions - ones that will give our officers meaningful answers and information to help them make those choices. So when the next person inevitably dies in police custody, there will be plenty of blame to share.

Roman Andreichikov's death on May 1, 2004 was heralded by virtual silence. The brawny personal trainer was high on cocaine and mumbling deliriously when his friend Rahim Hadani called for paramedics. Though there was no crime in progress, Vancouver police were the first to arrive.

According to Hadani, Andreichikov was behaving irrationally, but not violently when police Tasered him then pinned him aggressively to the floor. His last words, as officers pressed their weight into his back were reportedly "I can't breathe."

The VPD issued three short paragraphs about the incident in its May 3 daily media briefing, simply announcing the death and the start of its investigation. The Province newspaper reprinted the release almost verbatim in a news brief. The only other details to hit the pages of Vancouver's big dailies were in the obituaries.

Tyee stonewalled by VPD

While most media ignored Andreichikov's death, the VPD stonewalled The Tyee's attempts for answers. Despite the department not answering a single question on any topic, The Tyee published 'Dead in Custody' June 25. The article detailed how psychosis - as a result of either illness or drug use - coupled with violent restraint can result in the deadly phenomena known as excited delirium.

Psychosis floods the victim's bloodstream with panic hormones, and the struggle with police further jacks the system until the person's heart fails.

Some critics wonder if Tasers make these situations turn for the worse, by further stressing the victims' hearts. But it is also possible the weapons halt the escalation of violence in these confrontations, preventing further harm.

What the police also kept hidden was that while The Tyee was pressing them about Andreichikov's death, Robert Bagnell died, high on cocaine, after struggling with police and being Tasered. Bagnell's death on June 23 was just two days before The Tyee published its story.

The VPD waited a full month before announcing what happened. Bagnell's mother Riki only learned the details of his death from watching the news on TV. She had assumed he died from an overdose, until she learned of his confrontation with police.

New York Times rouses Sun

It's possible nothing would have been said in the media about Bagnell's death, had the timing been any different. He could have been just another Vancouver drug user dead and forgotten.

But on July 18, the New York Times told the story of Kris J. Lieberman, questioning if the police Taser was responsible for his death, and the deaths of several others. The 3,500-word article was a scathing critique of the weapon. The Times called on experts who said the weapon lacked independent testing.

Nearly a month after the Tyee's report raising questions about Andreichikov's death,  Tasers and excited delirium, the VPD's  announced Bagnell's death. This arriving five days after the New York Times ran its front page story on Tasers, local media finally took up the subject.

The Vancouver Sun produced its own article questioning the VPD's use of Tasers. In addition, it reprinted a more in-depth article by The Arizona Republic. The VPD responded by publicly Tasering reporters like BCTV's John Daly to show the weapon's safety.

But no members of the media paused to wonder why coroners have not been finding the Taser responsible for people's deaths, despite 50 instances where victims were Tasered before they died.

A lone voice

At least two people publicly questioned if there was something going on beyond just Tasers. Vancouver police chief Jamie Graham and B.C. Schizophrenia Society director Richard Dolman wrote an article for The Sun's July 29 commentary page which not only defended Taser use, but mentioned another suspected culprit - excited delirium.

Many mental health advocates support the use of Tasers when they can be used to instead of more lethal firearms.

The chief of police, it appears, has been reading The Tyee. Parts of Graham and Dolman's article seem to paraphrase sections of Andreichikov's story. One quote from San Francisco medical examiner Steve Karch appears exactly as it did in The Tyee's piece.

But Graham seems to use excited delirium to absolve police of any responsibility for people's deaths. It's drug use that dooms the victims of excited delirium. Graham, like The Tyee, uses Karch's quote, "If the death occurs while police are trying to restrain the victim, the police will be assumed to be responsible."

But Karch is not a research scientist, and his view is not the majority one.
Deeper inquiry needed

As The Tyee's article also pointed out, "researchers note that every excited delirium death is preceded by a forceful struggle with police. A study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal examined the deaths of 21 people due to excited delirium in Ontario. In all 21 cases, the deceased were forcefully restrained in a prone position, sometimes with pressure placed on the neck. Twelve of them (57 percent of the total) had a psychiatric disorder.

Only a minority of them - eight out of 21 (38 percent) - had cocaine in their system.

"In other words, while other factors may vary, the use of forceful takedowns remains a constant element in excited delirium deaths. Larger American studies have corroborated these findings."

Graham is right when he says there's not a lot we know about how to prevent excited delirium deaths. But available evidence suggests minimizing the use of force whenever possible. His officers need to have the best information lest they harm when they are trying to help. And that starts with shining light in the proper direction.

Dee Hon broke the Andreichikov story and writes regularly for The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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