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Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Tasers shouldn't be used on mentally ill: inquiry

June 9, 2010

HALIFAX — Tasers should not be used to restrain people known to be suffering from a mental illness or showing signs of emotional disturbance, the lead counsel for an inquiry into the death of a schizophrenic Nova Scotia man recommended Tuesday as the probe drew to a close.

Dan MacRury, in his closing submission, said the inquiry heard expert evidence that Howard Hyde's death in a Halifax-area jail cell on Nov. 22, 2007, was not linked to the repeated jolts he received from a stun gun while in police custody 30 hours earlier.

However, MacRury said a decision by Halifax police to repeatedly use a Taser on Hyde when he tried to flee a downtown police station only served to enrage a man who needed psychiatric treatment instead of incarceration.

"The use of the Taser on Mr. Hyde had the opposite effect than the officers had anticipated," MacRury told the inquiry, noting that police were told by Hyde's common-law wife that he was suffering a psychotic episode and had not been taking his medication for months when he allegedly assaulted her.

"The Taser, rather than being a debilitating influence, escalated the level of agitation, strength and mental disturbance of Mr. Hyde."

The inquiry, which started last July, heard that Hyde's sudden burst of strength could be attributed to a condition known as autonomic hyperarousal or excited delirium.

The condition is characterized by several traits, including incoherence, paranoia and suddenly intense, violent behaviour marked by profuse sweating and an elevated heart rate. In some cases, individuals die suddenly. Researchers have yet to determine why this happens.

In Hyde's case, police testified that they believed his heart stopped when he was eventually tackled and restrained in a hallway of the station.

Hyde, a 45-year-old musician, was revived by paramedics and later taken to hospital where he was given anti-psychotic medication. But he was released several hours later on the condition he get psychiatric help once he appeared before a judge.

But that never happened.

He died the next day as guards at the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility wrestled him to the ground after he refused to walk down a hallway, saying he thought there were "demons" at the other end.

The medical examiner ruled that the cause of Hyde's death was excited delirium due to paranoid schizophrenia with three contributing factors: restraint, obesity and heart disease.

MacRury said police in Nova Scotia should be told to stop using Tasers on mentally ill people, or those showing symptoms, because of the increased risk of serious injury and death, particularly for those in a state of excited delirium.

The recommendation was one of 62 MacRury submitted to the inquiry.

"The evidence is clear: crisis intervention techniques do work and the application of Tasers do not," MacRury said.

However, the lawyer representing Nova Scotia's attorney general said the provincial government can't support MacRury's recommendation.

Dana MacKenzie said that police, sheriffs and corrections officers would be put in the awkward position of having to guess whether or not a threatening person is mentally ill.

"It would be incredibly difficult to implement," she told the inquiry.

Later, MacRury stressed that the inquiry's focus was not on the use of stun guns.

"This is an inquiry on how we treat the mentally ill when they come in contact with the system," he said.

Most of MacRury's other recommendations called for improved training and communication systems for those who encounter the mentally ill within the criminal justice system and the health-care sector.

The inquiry heard that there were numerous miscues and persistent confusion among health and justice officials as Hyde's case moved through the system.

Information about his mental illness and previous scrapes with the law was not passed on and there was confusion about the use of a key health form and the proper use of various psychiatric assessments.

"From the first contact with Mr. Hyde by police, it is clear that there was a need for mental health training and better communications," MacRury said.

He said a senior official at the deputy minister level should be appointed as director of mental health in criminal justice to oversee the province's mental health strategy and manage a committee that would help implement the inquiry's recommendations.

As well, MacRury recommended:

-- Expanding the role of the province's mobile mental health crisis team, transforming it into a 24-hour service.

-- Providing training for police to recognize and handle people suffering from mental illness, including the addition of classroom instruction and role playing.

-- Requiring all police, sheriffs and correctional officers to take part in crisis intervention training.

-- Training emergency room doctors about the court system and the role of forensic psychiatric assessments and their options under the Involuntary Psychiatric Treatment Act.

-- Appointing two Crown attorneys who specialize in mental illness.

"Mr. Hyde suffered from schizophrenia which, in itself, should not be a death sentence," MacRury told the inquiry.

"However ... it is the fervent belief that as sad and needless as Howard Hyde's death may have been, it will serve as a catalyst to improve our institutions and the community for people suffering from schizophrenia."

The inquiry, described as one of the biggest of its kind in Nova Scotia history, heard from 86 witnesses during 54 days of hearings, creating 12,000 pages of testimony.

The head of the inquiry, Judge Anne Derrick, is expected to hear 196 recommendations from inquiry lawyers before she turns her attention to writing a final report.

Final submissions are expected to wrap up Thursday.

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