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Sunday, July 17, 2011

Excessive force a rarity for police: study

July 16, 2011
Tom Blackwell, National Post

Christine Hall witnessed a lot of drama during five years of emergency-medicine training, but one incident near the end of her residency left the young physician stunned. A patient had arrived at her Calgary emergency department violently agitated and incoherent, was restrained by security guards and injected with a sedative. And, within 2 ½ minutes, was dead.

The precise cause of the patient’s demise remains a mystery 10 years later, yet it stuck with Dr. Hall, inspiring her to launch an unprecedented and provocative study of what happens when police meet face to face with the public, apply force and, sometimes, cause serious or even fatal injuries. Her initial findings and analysis, part of which were published this month, offer a surprising — and controversial — counterpoint to the repeated allegations recently of excessive police violence.

From the Taser-related death of Robert Dzienskanski at Vancouver airport to the apparent sexual assault on a woman held by Ottawa police, the handling of suspects by Canadian law-enforcement has drawn frequent censure of late.

Dr. Hall says her study, in which officers at major forces in two provinces have been documenting hundreds of thousands of encounters with the public over the last four years, paints a different picture, however. She has identified fewer than 1,200 incidents of use of force among almost 1.8 million significant police-public interactions, and says most of the targets of the strong-arming were drunk, mentally distressed or violent, at least according to standardized reports filled in by the officers involved. One death was recorded.

What is more, Dr. Hall suspects people like her former emergency patient and others in police custody end up dead largely because of their own, out-of-control condition — not necessarily law-enforcement weapons like the Taser.

“There is a huge public misconception that every time a police officer is in a room with someone, someone is getting wounded. And in fact, when you do the data, it’s remarkably small,” said the physician, now based in Victoria.

“I think that harm is done when the public is exposed to a notion that use of force is rampant and it always turns out negatively … If the average member of the population knew that use of force represents far less than a 10th of a per cent of what police do, would we really want to spend a lot of tax money on sending every police officer to crisis intervention school?”

The physician hopes at the same time that her findings will eventually identify what type of person is most at risk of ending up dead or severely injured at the hands of police, and help officers deal with those people in a safer fashion.

Dr. Hall’s perspective on the emotional issue is not exactly embraced by everyone, though. She debated U.S. colleagues this month who believe emergency physicians like her should report suspected cases of police brutality, just as they now blow the whistle on possible domestic abuse. And she has taken flak for her focus on the victims of police use of force, rather than police actions and weapons.

The independent inquiry report on the death of Mr. Dzienskanski at Vancouver airport in 2007 concluded police officers had acted inappropriately in their handling of the Polish man, and lacked proper training in Taser use.

The B.C. Civil Liberties Association released a report last October that suggested there had been more than 400 deaths in police custody over a 15-year period in the six provinces and territories for which it could obtain statistics.

Dr. Hall’s research, funded by the federal government’s Canadian Police Research Centre, which is closely tied with the RCMP and Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, seems designed to deflect attention from any police wrongdoing, charged David Eby, executive director of the civil liberties group.

“The problem is that no question is going to be asked of this researcher that will potentially embarrass a police force,” he said. “It’s frustrating for me to see this sort of political research coming out … The real questions that need to be asked are not being asked, and that is frankly putting the public at risk.”

Dr. Hall, however, says her study is designed to avoid any bias and empirically get to the bottom of what happens when officers and the public meet. She has already involved police in two major Western Canadian cities and is about to bring a third online. Two other cities have tentatively agreed to be part of the research.

Whenever officers interact with the public they must fill out a form she developed that records the nature of any use of force, including the behaviour of the subject and police weapons used. Information is cross checked with medical and coroner’s records. The RCMP, though a subject of many of the recent charges of police excesses, has so far not gotten involved in the study.

The first full-blown report on the findings is being submitted for publication to a medical journal now, and details cannot be released until the paper comes out, Dr. Hall said. In a letter to the editor of the Annals of Emergency Medicine this month, however, she did divulge her finding that force was employed in just .07% of interactions. She also noted that police reported that 60% of recipients of that force were violent or very violent, and 86% seemed affected by drug or alcohol abuse, emotional distress or both.

The letter criticized a group of American emergency doctors who advocated in an earlier editorial that ER specialists report to internal-affairs departments or other authorities cases where they suspect police went overboard in their treatment of suspects. The group cited a 2009 survey of emergency specialists where 97% reported having seen patients who may have been victims of excessive force by officers. Dr. Hall called that research “seriously flawed,” arguing that few emergency doctors are qualified to gauge whether force was excessive, and cited her findings as evidence the issue is overblown.

Dr. Jared Strout, a Seattle emergency physician and one of the editorial’s authors, said in an interview, however, that emergency doctors have a duty to their patients to report suspicions, even if they cannot determine on their own if force was actually excessive.

He also acknowledged that the use of force is rare and excessive force very rare — despite the intense media coverage given some cases of police brutality. It is crucial, though, to keep an eye on those outlier cases and find out why they occur, Dr. Strout said.

“Police have a unique relationship with society, in that they are the only group that can legally use lethal force or any kind of force,” he said. “That kind of very protected status needs to be monitored extremely closely, because of the potential for abuse.”

Perhaps Dr. Hall’s most controversial assertion, though, is that the core cause of in-custody deaths may not be Tasers or other police tools, but a pattern of behaviour on the part of the victim that seems to be repeated over and over again in such cases. Like that patient in her emergency department, they tend to be violently agitated, sweaty, exhibit seeming superhuman strength and are oblivious to the police presence, she said.

Others, though, are skeptical about focusing on the individual, suggesting it is the police who must be doing something wrong. Dr. Strout said staff at his Seattle emergency department encounter and manage to subdue out-of-control patients “all the time,” with death and other complications being “exquisitely rare.”

“We don’t have weapons to use, we have medicines instead and we have different techniques and ways of dealing with these things,” he said.

“The interaction of the police and these subjects is why they’re dying and there very well may be ways the police can decrease that risk of death from their interactions.”

On that last point, at least, Dr. Hall is in agreement, suggesting that the result of her research may be some kind of protocol where police first subdue such suspects, call in paramedics to administer a sedative, then have them taken to hospital, not the police station.

“Of course,” she said, “if one believes it is all a worldwide giant police cover-up, then there is no need to investigate anything and people will continue to die while we spend our resources investigating the last police officer who came into physical contact with him or her.”

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