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Friday, August 26, 2011

'Excited delirium' very real, MD says

August 26, 2011
Daryl Slade, Calgary Herald

The officer who fired his Taser at a man who had allegedly broken into a southeast residence says it would have been difficult to do things any differently, given the information he and his fellow officers had.

"If at the time we knew the house was 100 per cent vacant, our tactics could have changed," Const. Stefan Van Tassell testified Thursday at a fatality inquiry.

"If there was nobody else in the house and he only could have harmed himself, we could have bought more time."

Van Tassell said it was only later determined that Gordon Bowe, 40, was in a state of excited delirium when he and other officers arrived at what they believed to be an occupied home in the 500 block of 42nd Street S.E. on Nov. 1, 2008.

The four police officers involved in subduing Bowe, including Van Tassell, were subsequently cleared of any potential wrongdoing and the investigation concluded the stun gun did not play any role in the man's death.

Dr. Christine Hall, a Victoria emergency room physician who has spent the past 10 years researching excited delirium syndrome, said Calgary police are "the gold standard" in incorporating training of the rare affliction.

"We're trying to give police agencies enough to know what to deal with," she testified. "A lot of people don't believe there is something significantly different about people who die in custody and the thinking is 'whoever touched him last must have caused his death.'

"But as a medical researcher, you look at the cases, you change the names, places and dates, and it's the same symptoms."

Hall said some doctors have never seen excited delirium and "think it's crap," but hers and other researchers' goals are to define the factors that police should be aware of when dealing with someone who has excited delirium.

She said such people are agitated, incoherent, are often partly naked and exhibit enormous strength.

Hall said she has submitted a research paper on the subject to the Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine, to help identify the symptoms and how to handle someone with excited delirium.

"It's very easy after the fact to look back and have all the cards fall and say, 'How couldn't I see that?' " she told provincial court Judge Heather Lamoureux, who is hearing the inquiry into Bowe's death.

"But it might not be an obvious thing while it's going on. Even though you're educated, you're not expecting that to happen. You have no idea somebody is going to die."

Court previously heard that Calgary police dealt with 37 arrests of people with excited delirium over the most recent three-year period examined.

She said it is being examined where such a suspect might be sedated from a distance, but that is difficult because of dosages and concerns the person might flee before it takes effect and either be injured or passed out somewhere unknown.

Van Tassell told Crown lawyer Jo-Ann Burgess that he and his partner arrived at the home and he used his flashlight to see the intruder through a broken window into the dark basement.

"I observed him in the baseent," Van Tassell said, alludng to Bowe.

"He was very irritated and aggressive. He was shouting, flailing his limbs about. I announced, 'Calgary police, you are under arrest,' several times. He didn't acknowledge me. I continued to issue challenges to him."

The officer said he then drew his Taser gun and deployed it through the open window and saw the man fall backwards, but he got up again fairly quickly and began moving toward him.

Van Tassell said he then went into the basement and saw Bowe running back and forth. He fired the stun gun two more times, but believed he missed the target at least once before he went down.

"I pulled the Taser, because it was the most effective means of taking him under control without injury," the officer told court.

Van Tassell said it took four officers, including himself, to finally handcuff Bowe. It was only after they got the cuffs on him that they suspected he was in an excited delirium and they summoned paramedics.

Van Tassell said he could not specifically recall if he had warned Bowe that he was intending to use his Taser if Bowe didn't comply.

The officer said the man was grunting and snorting heavily and never did give a verbal response. It was only at the point that he was handcuffed and subdued that it was suspected he might be in a state of delirium from use of illicit drugs.

"He wasn't communicating properly, just grunting, and I realized excited delirium was a possibility," Van Tassell recalled, "but I couldn't say with certainty he had excited delirium.

"He had been running around flailing, not fully clothed, but it was not until after the cuffs were on we thought it might be excited delirium."

The fatality inquiry continues today.

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