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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Inquiry begins into Halifax Taser-related death

February 17, 2009
By Richard Foot, Canwest News Service

A public inquiry begins in Halifax on Wednesday into the death of a mentally ill man who died a day after he was hit with a Taser stun gun while in police custody.

Howard Hyde, 45, died in a jail cell in November 2007 — five weeks after the high-profile death of Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski, who was Tasered by the RCMP at Vancouver International Airport.

Dziekanski's death is the subject of an ongoing inquiry in B.C.

A Nova Scotia judge will now begin a similar investigation in Halifax, which both Hyde's family and mental-health advocates are hoping will lead to new national standards for the treatment of psychiatric patients in the criminal justice system.

Hyde suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. He was arrested by Halifax Police on an assault charge after his girlfriend reported a domestic disturbance, and told police Hyde had not been taking his medication.

Hyde had been Tasered several years earlier, and reportedly had a deep fear of police. As he was being booked at the police station in 2007, he tried to flee. A violent struggle ensued, according to police, and Hyde was Tasered as officers brought him under control.

He was then taken to a hospital emergency department, and later locked up for the night in a corrections facility. The next day, during another struggle with authorities, he collapsed and died, about 30 hours after being shocked with the Taser.

He is the second Nova Scotian to die after being hit with a Taser in the past four years.

Nova Scotia's medical examiner ruled Hyde's death accidental — a result of "excited delirium" due to his mental illness — and not a result of the Taser strike.

But that hasn't stopped family members or health-care advocates asking whether he received proper psychiatric care after his arrest.

In a letter to the Schizophrenia Society of Nova Scotia, Hyde's girlfriend Karen Ellet says Hyde was not admitted to the East Coast Forensic Hospital — which treats mentally ill people involved in the justice system — based on an examination of him by a nurse, but not a doctor.

The nurse's decision "has me boiling over," says Ellet in her letter to the Society. "Since when does a nurse (make) such major decisions . . . It should have been a medical mental-health doctor.

"Because of her very, very poor decision, Howard may have been alive today. He was treated as a prisoner, not as a mental-health patient."

Ellet's letter was read to Canwest News Service by Stephen Ayer, executive director of the Schizophrenia Society, who agrees that Hyde should have been admitted to the mental-health hospital.

"There's a lot of questions we want to see addressed in this inquiry," says Ayer, "and they're all very relevant, not only to Mr. Hyde's situation, but to people who live with mental disorders and who come into contact with the law and are restrained, or Tasered, or both.

"There will be lessons out of this for the whole country, and for all police forces that deal with people who live with psychosis and become acutely agitated."

Halifax Police have said they did everything possible to restrain Hyde before using the Taser.

Provincial justice and health officials have declined to comment on the details of the case until the inquiry finishes its work.

RCMP Commissioner William Elliott announced last week that firing a Taser at an "acutely agitated" person does pose a risk of death, and said the force has changed its policy to only allow officers to use Tasers to protect themselves or the public.

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