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Friday, November 23, 2007

N.S. taser victim 'was running for his life'

November 23, 2007
OLIVER MOORE, Globe and Mail

HALIFAX -- A man who died a day after being tasered in what police describe as a violent attempt to escape custody was a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic who believed another police tasering two years ago weakened his heart, his sister says.

"He can become aggressive in [his] psychotic states, but essentially fearful," Joanna Blair said of her brother, Howard Hyde. "He did have a fear of police. Since the tasering incident he had a fear of taser guns. I feel he was running for his life."

Mr. Hyde died yesterday morning in the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility, about 30 hours after Halifax Regional Police arrested him for assault. He was tasered as he attempted to flee police headquarters during booking, Deputy Chief Tony Burbridge said in an interview. Police gave Mr. Hyde CPR, the senior officer said, and he received "a clean bill of health" after a visit to hospital.

He died the next day, prompting Nova Scotia Justice Minister Cecil Clarke to order a ministerial review of taser use.

His common law wife, Karen Ellet, said Mr. Hyde, who was "off his meds" was taken into custody following a domestic dispute.

The review is just one of a growing number of taser-related probes launched since Robert Dziekanski, a Polish immigrant who became agitated at the Vancouver airport, died after being shocked twice by RCMP officers. The events leading up to his death were captured on amateur video and its airing has sparked a national debate on use of the stun weapons.

The House of Commons public safety committee voted unanimously yesterday to investigate the death of Mr. Dziekanski. Also yesterday, Yukon's Department of Justice announced an immediate moratorium on use of the weapons.

An endorsement was heard, though, from the British Columbia Association of Chiefs of Police, which spent hours discussing taser use over the past two days. Their unanimous decision was to continue to use the devices, RCMP Superintendent Gord Tomlinson aid. And Halifax Regional Police said yesterday that they would continue to use tasers because "all medical evidence to date indicates that this tool is safe."

What killed Mr. Hyde remains unknown.

The 45-year-old man grew up in New York State and came to Nova Scotia in the late 1970s. By then he had finished high school and started, but dropped out of, college, his sister said. He was in normal physical condition, as far as she knew, apart from a sleep disorder that could keep him up for several days.

Mr. Hyde was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia in his early 20s, but disputed the diagnosis and did not regularly take his medication, his sister said. He had psychotic episodes, including one two years ago that she said attracted the attention of the police.

"He refused to answer the door," Ms. Blair said. "They broke in and found him in squalid conditions, emaciated. He was tasered. I don't know why he was tasered."

Ms. Blair said that her brother was a karaoke lover whose fondness for music was a constant through his troubled life. An amateur musician, he played several instruments and harboured a dream of being a celebrity.

"He did have a fantasy about being famous," she said. "And here he is; he achieved it overnight in his death."

The last day of Mr. Hyde's life began when he was taken into custody early Wednesday.

Deputy Chief Burbridge said that Mr. Hyde became violent in the fingerprint room. Officers used the taser when he attempted to leave the area behind the booking counter, the senior officer said, but the struggle continued and Mr. Hyde managed to leap the counter. He was tackled in the hallway.

The man could have been shocked more than once, Deputy Chief Burbridge said. At least one electroshock weapon was present at the second altercation, he said, but the surveillance camera was on an angle that made it impossible to see whether a second tasering had occurred.

Deputy Chief Burbridge said that he had not inquired among officers about the possibility of additional taser use, saying that the investigation is in the hands of the RMCP. The probe is expected to include camera footage, witness accounts, the routine taser report and events during Mr. Hyde's time in the hands of medical professionals and then correctional officers.

The officers involved in the incident are continuing their normal duties, a Halifax police spokeswoman said, based on the internal belief that they followed proper procedures and did nothing wrong.

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