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Saturday, November 29, 2008

Suggestion made to arm all cops with tasers

November 29, 2008
Neil Bowen, Sarnia Observer

Arming every front-line police officer with a Taser was one of 12 recommendations delivered Friday by a coroner's jury examining the police shooting death of Michael Douglas.

Douglas, 35, of Sarnia, fought with three police officers who used pepper-spray without effect while attempting to remove him from a home he'd entered after escaping from the locked psychiatric ward at Bluewater Health on March 7, 2007. Officers involved in the fight testified that a Taser could have helped control Douglas, who exploded violently at the idea of being returned to hospital.

Douglas told a 911 operator that the hospital was evil and people there had tried to hurt him.

John Greathead, the owner of the home Douglas entered shortly after 4 a. m., said Friday that he supports the arming of officers with Tasers. He said Douglas, at a muscular five foot eleven and 190 pounds, showed surprising speed and violence against police. After getting away from the three officers, he hid in the home's basement and held them at bay with a golf club until he climbed out a window several hours later. Douglas then stole a van and was shot and killed by an officer who feared he was about to be run over.

Existing government regulations restrict Tasers to members of police Emergency Response Teams and patrol supervisors. The Sarnia Police Service has a handful of Tasers in use.

The five jurors also recommended all Ontario psychiatric facilities consider the changes that have already been made at Bluewater Health.

The hospital has installed video surveillance cameras and new fire alarms on the psychiatric ward. The cameras eliminate blind spots and the alarms that unlock the ward's door automatically when pulled now require to key to activate them.

Douglas escaped after he moved unobserved to a fire exit leading into a stairwell and pulled the alarm.

Jurors also recommended a study of the Fire Code that might allow a delay between the alarm being pulled and doors unlocking.

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Other recommendations include:

* hospitals, police services and mental health agencies develop joint crisis management plans regarding training and sharing of information

* increasing annual mental health training for frontline officers (Sarnia officers currently get one hour every other year);

* review and update Emergency Response Team policies to delineate mandatory and discretionary procedures;

* full departmental debriefings as soon as possible following an incident;

* all agencies involved in an incident be encouraged to participate in a debriefing (Bluewater Health and the Canadian Mental Health Association will be invited to an upcoming police debriefing);

* regulate training of security officers on the use of force;

* Bluewater Health review its smoking pass policy for psychiatric patients to prevent escapes (Douglas did not escape during a smoke break but testimony indicates others have);

* Bluewater Health involve a psychiatrist in the decision to allow a patient out of a locked room (the current policy allows a nurse to make the decision about unlocking the door);

* Bluewater Health examine the psychiatric ward layout, which provides no barrier between adult and child patients.

Regional Coroner Dr. Jack Stanborough finished the two-week inquest by extending his condolences to Douglas's family. He called it a tragic event that underscored the stigma attached to mental illness, which may have contributed to a lack of treatment Douglas received.

Testimony indicated he suffered for years from frightening episodes that drove him to hide in basements.

"There's more of a stigma about mental illness than sexually transmitted diseases," Stanborough said.

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