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Black Lawmaker In Denver Tries To Limit Suspects' Involuntary Sedation

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Two years ago, somebody called the police on a young Black man named Elijah McClain, who was walking down the street in Aurora, Colo. Police tackled and handcuffed McClain, and then paramedics gave him a sedative. He went into cardiac arrest and later died. Now a lawmaker in Denver wants to rein in the use of involuntary sedation. Here's Michael de Yoanna from member station KUNC.

MICHAEL DE YOANNA, BYLINE: A year ago, as the Black Lives Matter movement rallied outside the state Capitol, lawmakers passed a sweeping police accountability bill. It bans police from using deadly force on suspects of minor crimes and bans chokeholds. Denver Representative Leslie Herod has been among those pushing hardest for reforms.

LESLIE HEROD: The use of ketamine is another weapon that's being used against our community, and it should be treated the same as any other use of force.

DE YOANNA: Ketamine is the powerful anesthetic that was used to sedate McClain against his will, and Herod says police are influencing paramedics to use it. Records show that, statewide, paramedics administered it in situations similar to McClain's almost once a day in a 2 1/2-year period. But Dr. Kevin McVaney, who works in Denver Health's emergency department, opposes Herod's bill. He told a legislative committee that ketamine sedations are an important tool for dealing with a condition called excited delirium. McVaney says deaths in police custody went down after Denver paramedics were given direction to intervene with ketamine in 2013.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KEVIN MCVANEY: In the seven years prior to 2013, in the city and county of Denver alone, there were eight restraint-related deaths. Since that time, there have been zero.

DE YOANNA: Paramedics describe people with excited delirium as combative and impervious to pain, but it is not defined in the American Psychiatric Association's diagnostic manual of disorders. In December, the association's board of trustees said excited delirium is a label disproportionately applied to Black men in police custody. Colorado's reform bill would bar police from directing paramedics to involuntarily sedate someone. Arapahoe County Sheriff Tyler Brown says that's a bad idea.

TYLER BROWN: We get on scene a lot quicker, and we're able to collect a lot of information that could be critical in assisting patients, and we need to be able to share that freely.

DE YOANNA: Brown says officers need to be able to tell paramedics what's happening. But reform bill sponsor Leslie Herod says it was police advice that resulted in Elijah McClain being sedated against his will, and there are too many outcomes like that.

HEROD: We have seen body camera footage after body camera footage that shows people who are detained, who are cooperating with law enforcement, who are still being given ketamine at the direction of law enforcement.

DE YOANNA: Herod's bill has passed Colorado's House and is now being considered in the Senate. It could impose 18 months in jail and fines of up to $5,000 for officers found to have wrongly pressured paramedics to sedate someone. For NPR News, I'm Michael de Yoanna in Colorado.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHELIAN'S "INTRO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

I joined KUNC in 2016 to oversee news operations just as the station changed its format to round-the-clock news and information. I got my start as a journalist at the turn of the century, working as a newspaper. I took the advice of my mentors and didn't get too comfortable at any one place, working in several newsrooms along Colorado's Front Range, learning a little more about the state each place I went. I spread my wings as a freelancer after that. I worked for many publications, including Salon, 5280 magazine in Denver and my own, now-defunct bloggy news site that, among other things, ran cartoons rejected by the New Yorker. I also got my first taste of broadcast journalism, working for "48 Hours Mystery," "60 Minutes" and, eventually, a day job as a producer at the investigative desk at 7News in Denver. My first story in public radio was a collaboration with KUNC in a subject I've long explored -- the treatment of injured troops returning home from war. It won a national Edward R. Murrow award, one of the many awards over my career I've been lucky enough to win. In 2017, I won a Columbia-duPont award for my investigation into the same subject with NPR Investigative Correspondent Danny Zwerdling.