A temporary mural of Elijah McClain painted on a building in Denver. (Photo courtesy of Thomas Evans)
During last summer’s widespread demonstrations for racial justice, one name that protesters chanted among those of Black people killed by police became a rallying cry at the state Legislature for a specific policy change.
Elijah McClain, 23, died in August 2019 after Aurora Police Department officers — responding to a 911 call about someone looking “sketchy” — violently detained McClain while he was walking home, and Aurora Fire Department paramedics subsequently injected him with 500 mg of ketamine, a powerful anesthetic that causes dissociation. McClain suffered cardiac arrest and was taken off life support days later.
Democratic lawmakers hope to pass a bill this year that attempts to restrict when and how the drug can be used by first responders.
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The dose of ketamine that McClain was injected with was far higher than it should have been, given he weighed about 50 pounds less than paramedics estimated, according to an independent investigation.
“Aurora EMS determined it was appropriate to administer ketamine to Mr. McClain despite the fact that he did not appear to be offering meaningful resistance in the presence of EMS personnel,” the February report found. “In addition, EMS administered a ketamine dosage based on a grossly inaccurate and inflated estimate of Mr. McClain’s size. Higher doses can carry a higher risk of sedation complications, for which this team was not clearly prepared.”
It’s unclear whether a lower dose of ketamine could have led to a different outcome, medical and EMS expert Melissa Costello told Aurora City Council members after the conclusion of the independent investigation, which Costello helped to conduct.
But the incident drew attention to the increasing use of ketamine to tranquilize people who are suspected of committing a crime or experiencing a behavioral health crisis.
Reps. Yadira Caraveo of Thornton and Leslie Herod of Denver, along with Sens. Rhonda Fields of Aurora and Julie Gonzales of Denver, are sponsoring House Bill 21-1251. The bill passed in the House on Friday and heads to the Senate for consideration.
HB-1251 would require emergency medical services providers, in situations with law enforcement present, to administer ketamine only to someone after weighing the individual or after having three trained people estimate the individual’s weight, to make sure the right dose is delivered. The paramedic would have to try to get verbal permission from the EMS director before administering ketamine.
“Ketamine is not a drug that should be used lightly or without being able to verify basic medical information like a patient’s weight, medical history, and other relevant factors,” Caraveo, a pediatrician, said in a statement. “Colorado has already lost far too many lives due to the misuse of this powerful drug.”
Outside of a hospital, HB-1251 would bar first responders from administering ketamine or a similar drug to sedate a suspect, except in cases of a “justifiable emergency.” A diagnosis of “excited delirium” — which paramedics used to justify injecting McClain with ketamine — wouldn’t count as a “justifiable emergency” if HB-1251 were to pass.
HB-1251 would also prohibit law enforcement officers from compelling, directing or unduly influencing a first responder’s use of a chemical restraint on a suspect. If that happened, the emergency medical services provider would have to report the violation to the Peace Officer Standards and Training Board, which manages the certification and training of law enforcement officers. The bill directs EMS providers not to base a medical decision entirely on the information provided by a law enforcement officer about a suspect.
In the September arrest of 26-year-old Hunter Barr, a Colorado Springs Police Department officer asked paramedics to “get him something” when Barr — whose father had called police after fearing he was overdosing — was resisting arrest, the Colorado Springs Indy recently reported.
Paramedics injected Barr with two doses of ketamine. He later died at a hospital, according to the Indy.
The coroner’s report listed the cause of Barr’s death as “toxic effects of ketamine in the setting of dextromethorphan,” a drug found in cough medicine, and “lysergic acid diethylamide,” the hallucinogenic drug LSD, the Indy reported.
Under HB-1251, an officer’s failure to intervene when a fellow officer administered or directed a paramedic to administer ketamine would constitute a class 1 misdemeanor — punishable by six to 18 months of jail time, a fine of up to $5,000, or both.
A law enforcement officer would be required to report to the POST Board anytime they or another officer used ketamine on a suspect. Failure to report would constitute a class 1 misdemeanor. Officers who administered ketamine could have their POST certification suspended or permanently revoked, unless they had training as an EMS provider and were performing EMS duties.
“For too long, ketamine has been misused during law enforcement interactions and outside of medical settings, and it has had dangerous, even deadly, consequences for Coloradans,” Herod said in a statement. “This bill represents a bold step forward in our efforts to improve policing in our state and ensure all Coloradans feel safe and protected by law enforcement.”
Organizations representing police officers, fire chiefs and emergency medical services oppose the bill.
“Law enforcement does not administer ketamine. Yet, House Bill 21-1251 places the responsibility for the ultimate EMS decision and action on law enforcement, with severe consequences when ketamine is administered,” the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police, County Sheriffs of Colorado and Colorado Fraternal Order of Police said in a joint statement May 5.
Police and EMS providers argue the basic procedures the bill outlines around ketamine use are already standard practice.
“Our job is to make sure the scene itself is safe for community members, paramedics, firefighters and law enforcement officials,” Steve Schulz, president of the Colorado Fraternal Order of Police, was quoted in the statement as saying. “Law enforcement does not have the authority to compel medical personnel to chemically restrain subjects.”
In the House, the bill passed on a vote of 37-25, with all GOP lawmakers opposed, and all Democrats present in favor, other than Rep. Donald Valdez of La Jara.
“Don’t use the tragic situations in Colorado regarding ketamine to criminalize police officers for their statements to paramedics,” Rep. Terri Carver, a Republican from Colorado Springs, said in a statement. “This bill will silence police officers from giving needed information to paramedics on scene, for fear of a criminal conviction if the police statements ‘unduly influence’ the paramedics in their medical decision to administer ketamine.”
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