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Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The death of Howard Hyde

For some time now, I have been in contact here and there with the family of Howard Hyde, who died in Halifax, Nova Scotia on November 22, 2007 at the age of 45. Howard was tasered by Halifax Regional Police at least twice and he died 30 hours later. His death was ruled accidental. The official cause of death was 'excited delirium due to paranoid schizophrenia.'

Howard's sister Joanna and her husband Hunter unexpectedly found themselves on the very difficult but well-travelled road they now share with all of the families who have lost a loved one so needlessly. At this time, Howard's family is entering into the fatality inquiry process, hoping to finally get closer to the truth about what happened to Howard. It was recently reported that at least part of the inquiry, to be held in Halifax, will be broadcast live via webcast this summer.

Recently, Hunter wrote a very eloquent message to me with his thoughts around Howard's death and tasers in general. With Hunter's permission, I post his thoughts here.

I will try to give you my feelings about the instrument of control (aka t.a.s.e.r.) used by police officers against the citizenry of our country.

Firstly I will give you some biographical background as I try to explain how my thinking has evolved over the last while. I have been a family physician for well over forty years and during the bulk of that time I have worked closely with police forces. I was a police surgeon for some three years in my native Scotland, dealing with everything from drunk drivers to rape and murder.

In 1968 I emigrated to Southern Ontario and was a coroner for ten years. Because the town I lived in (Tilbury) was bisected by the county line, I did both counties and consequently I was very busy and closely involved with the Ontario Provincial Police. I then moved to my present job in Nova Scotia where I was a Medical Examiner for about twenty years and thus closely involved with the RCMP.

This background did give me a great deal of understanding of the difficulties of policing. Fortunately I never professionally encountered taser use as the police I knew did not have it and most certainly did not need it.

To my discredit, I paid little attention to the use of the taser in the subduing of rowdy and difficult "criminals," even when it was occurring in my own Province. This was due to a decision made a few years ago to eschew reading newspapers and listening to broadcast news, my reasoning being that if I did not know what our political class was up to my blood pressure would remain in the normal range and I would live longer and happier.

The case of Mr Dziekanski did manage to penetrate my bubble in October of 2007. Just over one month later it all became personal with the death of my brother-in-law, Howard Hyde, some thirty hours after being tasered. Our source of information in this death was for a very long time the news media.

I, of course, started to research the subject of "death proximal to restraint" because of a faint memory I had of such deaths in mental hospitals. Google took me to the Centre for Canadian Police Research, and conveniently gave me Sergeant Darren Laur's paper on the taser, restraint and sudden death. It also gave me the briefest of email exchange with Dr. Christine Hall. I bought their story being, of course, unaware of their connection with Taser International. I dutifully regurgitated the facts in this document to the Media and anyone else who asked me about tasers and death.

Time went by and my wife and I realized that the Province of Nova Scotia was not about to give us any information about Howard's death any time soon. Neither, apparently, was the RCMP who investigated his death for the Medical Examiner's office. They were also to investigate the conduct of their brother organization, the Halifax Regional Police. The RCMP did a masterly job of telling us nothing at all. We obtained Howard's medical records, the record of his very brief court appearance -- probably lasting only about one or two minutes --- and gave a few interviews and thus hopefully helped the Province to reach the decision that it was in its best interest to hold a Public Inquiry.

During this time my thinking about tasers and the concept of "excited delirium" continued to evolve. Watching the horror that took place in Vancouver Airport shook my long held belief that policemen were mostly honourable and could be trusted. By now I was paying attention to the news and I realized that there seemed to be an epidemic of incidents in Canada requiring the "deployment" of a taser. There also was an obvious death rate proximal to taser use. That such a death rate exists has now been reluctantly admitted by the RCMP, although not by the manufacturer of this weapon. It occurs to me that if the taser were a medical device for which alternatives existed, and such a death rate were noted, it would be abandoned.

That something very sinister happens to the metabolism of people who die soon after being tasered and restrained is, of course, obvious. By giving this metabolic calamity a name, "excited delirium", those parties involved in these deaths shift the blame onto the deceased. The main symptom which seems to be mandatory in making this diagnostic call is death. There are others of course, such as agitation, erratic behaviour and most of all, failure to obey a police officer. Now psychotic and drug produced delirium has been around for a very long time and it does have a death rate. The death is almost exclusively due to accident and misadventure while in this toxic state and does not usually take place if the individual is treated properly. Coursing 50,000 volts through that person's body does not constitute proper treatment.

Now Taser International and police associations will protest that there is no evidence that being exposed to that kind of current kills, and that if the person dies he/she must have had "excited delirium". The convenience of this diagnosis is obvious. There is also no convincing evidence that tasering, particularly when multiple, does not cause death. Taser International et al will say that many of their employees, workers, etc. have been exposed to a taser jolt and have nicely survived. To convince me that this type of electrical injury is completely safe would require an unethical and very risky experiment. Let us take a few dozen or so taser enthusiasts and keep them awake for 4 or 5 nights while being exercised to the point of exhaustion and then treat them appropriately. I would expect a death rate of zero. Now repeat the experiment but this time expose them to a few jolts of a taser weapon. If the death rate is still zero I may now concede that the weapon is possibly safe. I doubt however that the rate would be zero. Obviously such an experiment would never pass an ethics committee and there would perhaps be a shortage of volunteers.

I have seen the video of Howard's tasering many times now. It still has the capacity to fill me with abhorrence that we are prepared to countenance such a barbaric tool. I now understand his fear and his confusion that fellow humans would behave in such a manner and that it would be legal. Joanna heard the soundtrack this morning for the first time and I am sure that it will haunt her.

The inquiry will be a very difficult time, but it must be borne if it will contribute to a total ban on taser use in Canada. Of course it should not take this inquiry nor another single death for this ban to occur. I fear that more families will undergo the pain of such deaths before the obvious solution happens. It is just as much a tragedy when a police officer is killed, but I have yet to see it convincingly shown that a taser would have prevented such an event. If it had I am sure that we would have heard about it in no uncertain fashion.

I have some difficulty in organizing my thoughts on this subject without a kind of rage taking over me.

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