Regardless of your opinion of police in general, and especially those in Aurora, they have the unenviable task of being the people we call when there’s a vast range of trouble and crises.
The debate about when and how police respond, and even what constitutes a police officer, is one of the most crucial appraisals of our generation. The analysis in Aurora, across the state and nation, will be long and arduous.
But Colorado cannot wait until a string of investigations and introspections are complete to make some profound decisions and changes.
One of those potential changes that must be considered now involves sedating people that police encounter who, for many reasons, are enraged and physically out of control.
One infamous case in Aurora occurred in 2018. Police were called to the home of David Baker after family members said he was making violent threats. What ensued was a stunning and lengthy brawl among a handful of police officers and Baker. Aside from whether police escalated the situation, after Baker became enraged, he was tazed about 12 times before being tackled and held down using a variety of holds and sheer force. He died from what coroner officials said was likely restraint asphyxia. He was not tranquilized.
In 2019, Elijah McClain, encountered by police while innocently walking home from a convenience store, reportedly struggled during his confrontation with officers. At one point, McClain was pinned and forced to faint. He was then injected with Ketamine, a tranquilizer that has become the go-to drug to sedate enraged or hysterical people encountered by police or medics. He suffered cardiac arrest and never regained consciousness.
Both of these cases are rife with problems that have rightfully put police and rescuers in a light of suspicion.
But the use of drugs by rescuers to sedate people who are for some reason out of control — and sometimes the incidents have nothing to do with potential crimes — stands apart from the conundrum surrounding police racism and brutality.
Rescuers, aside from police, passionately insist that Ketamine’s use prevents injury to uncontrollable patients and other victims, rescuers and even severe distress for people who are injured or panicked.
During a lengthy and comprehensive assessment of the McClain death, a group of investigators, which included an emergency department doctor who advises rescuers, also insisted that, dispensed correctly, Ketamine and similar sedatives are safe and important tools. They are used inside hospitals for the same reason rescuers reach for them.
Currently, both the state and Aurora have suspended the use of Ketamine in the field. A bill approved by a state House committee last week would severely limit and further regulate its use.
House Bill 1251 would immediately preclude police from asking medics to inject people they encounter and deem problematic. Part of the McClain controversy surrounds police insisting on what is only a medical decision. Whether medics caved to those requests, here or in other instances, isn’t settled. The bill clearly puts the decision of whether and when to tranquilize a subject in the hands of medics. Police can be disciplined not only for asking for use of the drug, but for not reporting other officers who ask medics to tranquilize people.
The even bigger problem the bill tries to address are the details surrounding the use of Ketamine. By their nature, these events are chaotic and often dangerous. The danger is multiplied by enraged people who can also be intoxicated or have other health issues. In a relatively controlled setting of a hospital, the myriad details surrounding whether, when, how much and how to inject are challenging. Amid the chaos of an arrest, crime scene or disaster, the challenges can become exponential.
A critical aspect of the McClain case is the fact that medics grossly overestimated the massage therapist’s weight, injecting more Ketamine into him than dispensing instructions called for.
The House bill would require medics to accurately determine a subject’s body mass before they could inject Ketamine. How that would happen is unclear, though technologically not impossible.
Whether these new procedures and regulations might have saved McClain’s life is unknown. The cause of his death is disputed.
But the incident made clear that the decision and timing to sedate a subject is only a medical one.
Since the experts consistently testify that tranquilizing enraged subjects benefits everyone, when used correctly and appropriately, House Bill 1251 makes sense. As to whether Aurora is able to prove they can implement these changes and be able to prove it, that’s another matter.