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Friday, November 25, 2011

A Response to Cassandra

Letter to the Editor of Blue Line magazine, May 2011
Dr. Mike Webster, Police Psychologist

I read Sgt. Fawcett’s article in the May 2011 issue of Blue Line with great interest. I thought his use of the “reverse-Cassandra effect” (i.e. speaking falsehoods and being believed) was clever but somewhat indiscriminately applied in this case. In his article Sgt. Fawcett implies that all (police related) research is good research simply because it exists. With respect, I think Sgt. Fawcett may be guilty of another form of cognitive distortion – overgeneralization.

While it is certainly true that the majority of the work he cited is reputable research, it is not the case for some topics mentioned in his piece. For example, it is universally accepted by those trained to distinguish between reputable and questionable research that the TASER’s health and safety effects have never been subjected to rigorous, independent, and impartial research. It is true that a plethora of research on the weapon exists, and has been completed by an army of M.D.s and Ph.D.s, but it lacks scientific rigour and has been termed “junk science”.

It is never a good sign (or good for business) when a manufacturer contradicts its earlier “scientifically proven” claims. Taser International recently (2010.05.01) issued a new training manual for the X26 TASER. It includes a long list of alarming risks and warnings which constitute an “about face” on original claims based upon their research. Here are only a few of these warnings. The company now cautions that the weapon “has not been scientifically tested on pregnant women, the infirm, the elderly, small children, and low body mass persons” . . . and . . . “the use on these individuals could increase the risk of death or serious injury”. The company goes on to admit “that the TASER can produce physiologic or metabolic effects, which include changes in: acidosis, adrenergic states, blood pressure . . . heart rate and rhythm . . .”. With this statement Taser International directly disputes its own previous research findings and confirms what critics of that research have said for over a decade. Finally, Taser International appears to “throw in the towel” as they abdicate responsibility for their own weapon in the statement recommending that “all TASER . . . users conduct their own research, analysis, and evaluation”. So are we to think anyone who is critical of Taser International’s sloppy research is speaking a falsehood?

With regard to the controversial topic of excited delirium, Sgt. Fawcett implies that it has been the subject of “scientifically sound” research. In fact, it is not something that scientists can study in a controlled (scientifically sound) environment. Moreover, his assertion that there exists “documented descriptions of excited delirium in research dating back to the 1800’s,” is similar to saying that there are documented descriptions of the Yeti (abominable snowman) in research dating back to the same time period; and we are all aware of how those descriptions have failed to increase the credibility of the creature in the minds of the scientific community.

The term excited delirium was contemporarily applied by medical researchers to describe (not diagnose) the extreme end of a continuum of drug abuse behaviours such as “cocaine-induced excited delirium”. Neurologist Deborah Mash’s research on brain biomarkers for the identification of excited delirium seems to support the use of the term as a descriptor of cocaine induced behaviour and its association with cocaine toxicity; not as a diagnosis or its general application to all erratic behaviour.

The agitated and deranged behaviours termed excited delirium and observed by a police person in the community are essentially indistinguishable from those present in agitated schizophrenia, agitated hyper-mania, agitated dementia, true delirium, or a cocaine induced rant; there is nothing to differentiate these conditions, one from the other, save a full medical/psychiatric workup.

Most concerning was Sgt. Fawcett’s implication that because of equivalent early research results the concerns with prone restraint had been discredited. He and I were witnesses at the same Commission of Inquiries where a long line of distinguished medical experts, citing recent research, cautioned against the impairment of respiration as it is associated with prone restraint. Even the Canadian Police Research Centre in 2005 emphasized that respiratory impairment becomes particularly crucial when restraint is applied during or after a prolonged physical struggle. It is uncontroversial that acidosis is cleared primarily by the lungs; therefore during or after a prolonged struggle the body’s natural response is to hyperventilate. However, hyperventilation can be impeded if a subject is lying face down (prone). In this position, prone restraint becomes an obstacle to the subject’s attempts to clear acidosis, thus increasing the risk for cardiac arrhythmias.

So to conclude, are we to understand that when anyone wishes to question or criticize police actions, or methods, they will be viewed as part of the “reverse-Cassandra cry”? Does Sgt. Fawcett really believe that all those who criticize the police are anti-police? Is it not possible that those who are critical of police actions, or methods, also love their communities (and police services) and want the best for them both? And when Sgt. Fawcett muses, “one wonders when there will ever be enough research done to satisfy the critics”, does this reflect an understanding of the scientific method and its place in society? Or when he asserts that, “Credible police trainers stay current with research in a variety of fields . . .” how much faith can we have in his assertion after reading his article? Most importantly, does the tone of his article bring law enforcement any closer to the community it serves, or does it do more to feed the “us versus them” mentality?

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