Cops -- and the paramedics who listen to their "medical advice" -- are still killing people. A couple of years ago, an investigation by the Minneapolis PD’s Office of Police Conduct Review found officers were telling EMS personnel to inject arrestees with ketamine to calm them down. This medical advice followed street-level diagnoses by untrained mental health unprofessionals who’ve decided the perfect cure for "excited delirium" is a drug with deadly side effects.
People have been "calmed" to death by ketamine injections -- ones pushed by police officers and carried out by complicit paramedics. The cases reviewed by the OPC included potentially dangerous criminals like jaywalkers and disrespecters of law enforcement ("obstruction of justice"). Multiple recordings showed arrestees shot up with ketamine shortly before their hearts stopped or they ceased breathing.
This incredibly dangerous practice of using ketamine to sedate arrestees hasn’t slowed down. Instead, it has spread. What was a horrific discovery in Minneapolis is still day-to-day business elsewhere in the country. Cops and paramedics in Colorado are still putting peoples’ lives at risk by using ketamine as their go-to sedative.
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 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 color.
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 hospitalizations and even deaths.
McClain was killed because paramedics assumed he weighed nearly twice as much as he actually did. They gave him an inadvertent double dose that triggered cardiac arrest. Soon after that, McClain was declared brain dead and removed from life support. McClain was killed for the crime of being suspicious in public (cops were responding to a call about a "suspicious person wearing a ski mask and waving their arms.") And he was killed by the people who were supposed to ensure his health and safety.
After his death, Colorado’s health department attempted to investigate law enforcement use of ketamine. That investigation appears to have fallen apart before it could really get started. As the AP report points out, there are no uniform reporting requirements for ketamine deployment -- not at any level of government. State requirements are different from federal requirements. Consequently, there’s no cohesive collection of data on this drug’s use.
Unfortunately, most government guidelines agree cops can use a particularly worthless term to justify the use of the sedative.
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.
Even if "excited delirium" was a mental health condition recognized by a large number of medical and mental health entities and governing bodies (spoiler alert: it isn’t), police officers aren’t qualified to make diagnoses and recommend sedatives after limited interactions with people they’re trying to arrest. But government bodies have already issued this permission slip to cops and they use it as often as they can. It’s a diagnosis that rarely comes from anyone but a law enforcement officer or official.
The drug is only safe when deployed in controlled settings by healthcare professionals. Even then, there may be complications due to preexisting conditions. Turning it into a tool of arrest tradecraft eliminates all the expertise and replaces it with expedience. It may not go wrong every time. But it goes wrong often enough -- and with deadly consequences -- that no one should feel comfortable allowing law enforcement and EMS crews to make off-the-cuff decisions about its use.
There were 902 reported instances of Colorado paramedics administering ketamine from 2018 to 2020, and almost 17% had complications, including cardiac arrest and oxygen deprivation, the state health department said.
If it increases the chances of death, everyone involved should steer clear of it. EMS personnel are supposed to be lifesavers, not deathbringers. The same goes for cops. Just because someone’s uncooperative doesn’t mean they need to be subjected to something that could kill them. That a 17% failure rate hasn’t slowed this practice down shows how little cops and their first responder buddies care about the lives of people in handcuffs.
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