Friday, May 13, 2011

Taser guidelines still in works

An article published in today's edition of The Chronicle Herald:
Justice minister promises rules resulting from Hyde inquiry will be released soon

By Michael MacDonald, The Canadian Press

More than three years after the jail cell death of a mentally ill man, the province’s Justice Department has yet to introduce new guidelines describing when peace officers can use Tasers.

Howard Hyde died on Nov. 22, 2007, after a struggle with guards at a Halifax-area jail. His tragic story attracted national attention because Halifax police Tasered him multiple times during a psychotic episode about 30 hours before he died.

In December of last year, provincial court Judge Anne Derrick released a fatality inquiry report that concluded the Tasering did not cause the death of the 45-year-old musician, who had long suffered from schizophrenia.

However, Derrick did find that the Tasering worsened Hyde’s rapidly deteriorating mental state, and she recommended that stun guns should not be used to immobilize emotionally disturbed people unless crisis intervention techniques have failed.

In its formal response to Derrick’s report, the provincial government said Thursday its revamped guidelines are still being finalized.

Justice Minister Ross Landry [pictured] said he is still concerned about the ability of police officers to recognize mentally ill people in distress.

"It’s very difficult in situations where . . . there’s a high level of disturbance for the police officer to determine whether the person is suffering from mental illness," Landry, a former RCMP officer, told a news conference.

Landry said he had hoped to have the guidelines ready before the government issued its response to Derrick’s inquiry. He didn’t say why there was a delay, but he confirmed the new rules will be released within two weeks.

During Derrick’s fatality inquiry, which lasted 11 months, Halifax Regional Police argued that its officers are trained not to stun anyone until de-escalation techniques have been tried. But Derrick rejected that position, saying police policy and the province’s standards made no mention of this requirement.

Despite the absence of new guidelines, the government’s response indicates police have already changed the way they use so-called conducted energy weapons.

Since 2007, the year Hyde died, police use of the type of stun gun used on the man has dropped by 74 per cent in Nova Scotia.

Landry said the dramatic decline was the result of a growing body of knowledge about the weapon. He said police were still learning about the impact of the weapon in 2007 when a medical examiner declared Hyde’s death was caused by a condition known as excited delirium.

The condition, also known as autonomic hyperarousal, is characterized by increased strength, paranoia and suddenly violent behaviour marked by profuse sweating and an elevated heart rate. Hyde demonstrated most of the traits in the hours before he died.

However, Derrick’s report rejected excited delirium as the cause of death, finding instead the death was caused by Hyde’s struggle with jail guards. The judge concluded the guards applied restraint techniques that may have interfered with Hyde’s breathing.

Kevin MacDonald, the lawyer representing Hyde’s sister, Joanna Blair, said his client was troubled by the fact that the government’s response says that police and corrections officials require a clear understanding of how conducted energy weapons may affect people in an autonomic hyperarousal state.

"There appears to be a suggestion that the police be trained to recognize the symptoms of (excited delirium) when . . . judge Derrick’s report states that the province should not emphasize in its policies or training the phenomenon of excited delirium," MacDonald said in an interview.

"It’s significant because excited delirium . . . can be used as a justification for the use of force, which is what happened in Mr. Hyde’s case. I think it’s wrong that they’re taking this position. It’s contrary to what judge Derrick found, and it indicates there’s not an acceptance of the cause of the death."

In her inquiry report, Derrick said she agreed with one expert who testified that citing excited delirium as a cause of death resulted in Hyde being "identified as the culprit."

"(Derrick) specifically cautioned police officers . . . from looking for signs of excited delirium," MacDonald said. "And here is the province suggesting they’re going to train them in recognizing it."

Most of Derrick’s 80 recommendations called for improved training, more funding for mental health services and better co-ordination and communication between justice and health officials.

On Thursday, Health Minister Maureen MacDonald said the province has already implemented some of the judge’s recommendations, but some will have to wait because the government has yet to receive a final report from a committee appointed last year to draft a provincial mental health and addictions strategy.

"There are a number of actions and activities that are very significant that will make a real difference for people who are suffering from a mental illness," MacDonald said, adding that 911 dispatchers have been given a standardized checklist that will help them recognize mental health issues.

Among other things, the province has increased crisis intervention training for police and health-care professionals, and it has established a new, psychiatric intensive care unit at the East Coast Forensic Hospital near Halifax.

As well, a new mental health and justice committee has been appointed, and the province is spending $4 million this year on residential units for people recovering from mental illness.

Aside from the money for the residential units, the province provided no other cost estimates.

Stephen Ayer, executive director of the Schizophrenia Society of Nova Scotia, said the government’s moves represent an important first step.

"There’s a lot of work to be done yet," he said after the government report was released. "Things have changed immensely because of (Howard Hyde’s) death . . . I think that things are going to change substantially."

Also see:

Province Releases Plan to Improve Care in Custody

Building Bridges: Improving Care in Custody for People Living with Mental Illness

Hyde Fatality Inquiry

Image credit

No comments: