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Saturday, August 15, 2009

System failing mentally ill in jails: experts

August 15, 2009
Megan O'Toole, National Post

Phase one of an inquiry into the death of a Nova Scotia man who was Tasered while in police custody ended yesterday, and experts say the process has underscored a dire need for changes in the treatment of mentally-ill prisoners.

After five weeks of testimony and a number of controversial witnesses, including officers involved in the struggle to subdue Howard Hyde of Dartmouth, N. S., the inquiry has been adjourned for two months.

Testimony to date has shown a number of systemic flaws, observers say, including a severe lack of co-ordination between police and health-care services.

"There were a lot of balls dropped," said Stephen Ayer, executive director of the Schizophrenia Society of Nova Scotia, noting the case underscores the need for police to be better trained in how to handle mentally-ill prisoners. "Right from the get-go, police didn't give Howard a fair shake."

The paranoid schizophrenic, who reportedly harboured a deep fear of police, was initially arrested for assault after an argument with his girlfriend, who told authorities Mr. Hyde had not been taking his medication.

At that point, Mr. Hyde should have been taken to hospital for assessment and treatment, Mr. Ayer said, but instead he was taken to the Halifax police detachment. Rambling and in a psychotic state, Mr. Hyde apparently attempted to flee after a booking officer took out a knife to cut the drawstring off his shorts.

That prompted a violent struggle, captured on surveillance video and shown during the inquiry, in which a shirtless

and frantic Mr. Hyde screams and struggles to escape. Police say they were concerned he would reach for a knife from a nearby drawer of weapons, and shocked him with the Taser to regain control. He collapsed and was taken to hospital.

The use of a Taser on a paranoid schizophrenic person, as an aggressive act, "could have a tendency to make things worse, to have the issue escalate out of control," noted University of Alberta psychiatrist Patrick White.

While hearing testimony from a couple of the officers involved in the scuffle, the inquiry learned -- contrary to earlier official reports -- that Mr. Hyde had not been asked to co-operate as officers struggled to handcuff him, nor was he warned the Taser would be deployed.

Chris Summerville of the Schizophrenia Society of Canada said a better technique would have been attempting to talk Mr. Hyde down from his psychotic state, then handcuffing him once he had calmed down. Police should be trained for such situations, Mr. Summerville said, but in many cases they are not.

Mr. Hyde's girlfriend, Karen Ellet, has said he "was treated as a prisoner, not as a mental-health patient."

After doctors cleared Mr. Hyde to leave the hospital, they requested he have a follow-up psychiatric examination after his morning court hearing, or that he be returned to the emergency room -- something the officers were not authorized to do.

Neither happened, and Mr. Hyde ended up back in his jail cell, where he died about 30 hours after receiving the initial Taser jolt. Nova Scotia's medical examiner pegged the cause of death as "excited delirium" linked to his mental illness.

Carol Tooton, executive director of the Canadian Mental Health Association's Nova Scotia division, says the case could have ended differently had Mr. Hyde received proper treatment for his schizophrenic condition. The inquiry, she noted, has underscored a staggering lack of co-ordination between police, mental-health workers, courts and hospital staff -- resulting in a failure to properly deal with a man travelling between those systems.

"We often talk about working in silos," Ms. Tooton said. "It seems that [those] systems really do operate independent of one another."

The inquiry resumes in October, with recommendations from Judge Anne Derrick expected next year.

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