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Saturday, January 07, 2012

Editorial: Delirious Fatality report

January 7, 2012
Calgary Herald

The fatality report into the death of Gordon Bowe adds ammunition to the argument that public inquiries too often become a waste of time and money.

Provincial Court Judge Heather Lamoureux’s recommendations are curious, in that they are almost entirely built around the theory that excited delirium is a legitimate medical condition, an assertion that’s controversial and widely disputed. She concluded Bowe, 40, died as a result of excited delirium syndrome, which she says was brought on by cocaine use, and not from the deployment of a Taser gun, used by Calgary police trying to subdue him.

Her nine recommendations in the seven-page report almost all deal with developing protocols around excited delirium, treating it as a legitimate condition without reference to the controversy or debate in the medical community. She calls for mandatory training of emergency response workers, police and dispatchers in identifying excited delirium, and wants a national database established, where police chiefs across Canada would “record and share information relating to death associated with Excited Delirium.”

There’s another school of thought that warns the controversial diagnosis of excited delirium is a distraction from the true cause of the medical condition that caused the death, and is used to justify use of force by police.

The exhaustive Braidwood inquiry into the Taser death of Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski heard overwhelming evidence that, while delirium is real, excited delirium is “NOT a valid medical or psychiatric diagnosis.” Moreover, it “provides a convenient post-mortem explanation for in-custody deaths where physical and mechanical restraints and conducted energy weapons were employed.”

Just a year ago, another provincial court judge in Halifax, who presided over an 11-month inquiry and wrote a far more comprehensive 460-page report, to Lamoureux’s seven pages, reached conclusions similar to Braidwood’s.

Provincial Court Judge Anne Derrick rejected excited delirium as the cause of death of a man Tasered repeatedly by police. She warned: “This case should sound a loud alarm that resorting to ‘excited delirium’ as an explanation for a person’s behaviour and/or their death may be entirely misguided.”

Excited delirium is not listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the medical community’s bible for diagnosing psychiatric illness. Even an independent report commissioned by the RCMP criticized the term and concluded it is sometimes used as an excuse to justify using a Taser.

All that aside, asking police officers to diagnose the mental state of an agitated suspect in the midst of a crime scene places too much responsibility on those who are not trained psychiatrists.

John Dooks, president of the Calgary Police Association union, offers another perspective. Dooks supports any tools that can help better educate and train officers, so that they are able to identify the symptoms described as excited delirium, regardless of whether or not excited delirium is a legitimate medical condition.

We agree there are physical attributes that are common in all of these cases that police would do well to understand and recognize. When these symptoms present themselves, police should refrain from using stun guns on the suspects, and call for medical help immediately. A public inquiry isn’t needed to reach that conclusion.

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