Dealing with agitated people

Recent deaths in our province have unleashed a torrent of criticism and discussion about the use of police tasers as a means to subdue agitated individuals.

In particular, the death of Robert Dziekanski at the Vancouver airport last month is a disturbing story with many details still unclear.

A few things are clear when watching video footage of the incident. Mr. Dziekanski was visibly upset and confronted by four police officers while in a secure area of the airport. No verbal communication was possible due to a language barrier and no interpreter. He was not threatening the police officers and was unarmed – yet within 25 seconds of entering the area the police used their taser guns to subdue him.

Hospital employees in psychiatric wards across the country are faced with situations very similar to this on a daily basis. Agitated often psychotic, patients who are in secure wards and creating a disturbance. These staff members are often nurses or aides and generally have no formal training in self-defense or physical combat – and they successfully manage agitated patients without the help of any weapons.

When dealing with agitated patients, hospital staff use skills of persuasion and call a code white when necessary. During a code white, staff from other areas of the hospital come to assist and force may be used to gain control of the situation. All members of the code white team are volunteers who have taken a brief training course on what to do in various situations with agitated and uncooperative patients.

If hospital staff can do this without weapons, the police can too and should be better trained in how to deal with agitated people who may or may not have mental illness. A weapon should seldom be necessary when confronting an unarmed individual.

In the encounter with Mr. Dziekanski, the police clearly had adequate manpower, no one else was in danger and Mr. Dziekanski could not escape. It seems obvious the situation was handled poorly.

First, the authorities involved should have tried to communicate with Mr. Dziekanski through an interpreter. Had they been aware of him sooner, they could have at least brought in his mother who was waiting in another area of the airport and who asked after him repeatedly. If she had been present as a familiar face and someone who could assist him in communicating, it is unlikely the problem would have escalated as it did.

Empathy for his situation would have been a good second step in avoiding this tragedy.

It certainly isn’t too difficult to imagine what might have upset Mr. Dziekanski. Anyone who has traveled recently can probably attest to enough frustrating experiences to have some empathy for this man. He arrived in Canada after a long flight and was likely exhausted, stressed out by unfamiliar circumstances and his lack of knowledge of the English language.

Going through security and customs can be very irritating even when you are well rested and speak the language. Staff can seem unnecessarily intimidating and tend to treat people in an impersonal manner. This custom seems almost universal and I suspect it may be part of the job training – if so, I think it is a mistake.

In my opinion, communication and empathic behaviour from everyone who dealt with Mr. Dziekanski could likely have prevented the escalation and eventual confrontation from taking place.

As for whether tasers are safe – I cannot imagine a drug continuing to be used if this many people died after taking it – even if it wasn’t entirely certain what role the drug played in the deaths. At the very least more research would be required and the drug would likely be taken off the market until the evidence was collected.

In the pharmaceutical world the company producing the drug would be required to fund new research if it wanted to continue marketing the drug.

Perhaps the same should be required of the company producing and selling the tasers to police services across Canada and the rest of the world.

 

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