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Bill To Limit Ketamine Sedations In Police Presence Passes First Hurdle In Colorado Senate

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Paul Karolyi
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A year ago, as Black Lives Matter supporters rallied outside Colorado’s Capitol building, lawmakers passed a sweeping police accountability law. It bans officers from using deadly force on suspects of minor crimes. It bans chokeholds. Now, a group of lawmakers wants to rein in paramedics’ use of drugs to sedate people in the presence of police.

“The use of ketamine is another weapon that's being used against our community and it should be treated the same as any other use of force,” said Rep. Leslie Herod, a Denver Democrat.

Herod and three other lawmakers are co-sponsors of House Bill 1251.

“Law enforcement cannot direct or use ketamine on an individual for the purposes of arrest,” Herod said of the bill.

Ketamine is the powerful anesthetic that an Aurora Fire Rescue paramedic used to sedate Elijah McClain, the 23-year-old Black man that police confronted in 2019, saying he looked “sketchy.” McClain was given the quick-acting drug while in handcuffs as police held him on the ground. He went into cardiac arrest while being transported to the hospital and later died.

Paramedics across Colorado sedated people more than 902 times with ketamine in two and a half years, according to state public health records.

Kevin McVaney, an emergency doctor with Denver Health, defended the practice, has testified twice before lawmakers. He said that the drug can prevent people with extreme agitation, including a rare condition called excited delirium, from dying. Denver, he said, has a comprehensive excited delirium program that began in 2013. In the seven years prior to its start, there were eight (police) restraint-related deaths.

“Since that time, there have been zero,” McVaney said.

People with the condition are described as combative and impervious to pain, with agitation so extreme that without immediate intervention, they can overexert themselves and die suddenly.

Excited delirium is discussed in a 2009 white paper by the American College of Emergency Physicians, but it is not found in the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic manual of disorders. In December, the APA’s Board of Trustees wrote in a position statement that the criteria for excited delirium “are unclear and to date there have been no rigorous studies validating excited delirium as a medical diagnosis.” The board also wrote that “the term excited delirium is disproportionately applied to Black men in police custody.”

Aurora medics claimed McClain was extremely agitated with excited delirium, but an independent report released earlier this year found that they appeared “to have accepted the officers’ impression that Mr. McClain had excited delirium without corroborating that impression through meaningful observation or diagnostic examination of Mr. McClain.”

Herod said McClain’s case is one of many that raise doubts about the basis for ketamine sedations in the presence of police.

“We have seen body camera footage after body camera footage that shows people who are detained, who are cooperating with law enforcement, who are still being given ketamine at the direction of law enforcement,” Herod said.

She cited several cases, including another man's — Elijah McKnight — whose story was part of a KUNC / Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting investigation last year.

After lengthy hearings in recent weeks, the House passed the bill with amendments, sending it to the Senate. On Monday, it passed its first hurdle, the chamber’s Judiciary Committee, which approved the bill in a 3-2 vote.

A provision in the bill that would impose 18 months in jail and up to $5,000 in fines if officers unduly push paramedics to give ketamine to people has drawn opposition from the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police.

Arapahoe County Sheriff Tyler Brown said the bill could prevent officers from communicating important details to paramedics about a person who may need medical care.

“We get on scene a lot quicker and we're able to collect a lot of information that could be critical in assisting patients, and we need to be able to share that freely,” Brown said.

He called the bill “vague in certain areas.”

“There might be a situation where we're unsure if the information that we have is appropriate to communicate because of the consequences that come with that,” Brown said.

Another provision in the bill would require paramedics to weigh people or require two trained personnel to agree on an estimation of a person’s weight before sedating them if police are present.

Independent investigators in Aurora found that medics “administered a ketamine dosage based on a grossly inaccurate and inflated estimate of Mr. McClain’s size” and that “higher doses can carry a higher risk of sedation complications, for which this team was not clearly prepared.”

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