JEMS.com Editor s note: For more on this subject, check out the May 2007 JEMS article Holding Back: Issues in Patient Restraint by JEMS.com columnist Bryan E. Bledsoe, DO, FACEP.
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Police officers wrestled with Briant Parks for more than three minutes on the floor of a Downtown hotel lobby, pressing Tasers against him as many as 10 times in an effort to subdue him.
No one knows when Parks stopped breathing, but he had no pulse when paramedics arrived, 10 minutes after the struggle with officers ended.
His death one year ago had many of the characteristics of a phenomenon known as excited delirium, according to an expert on the syndrome.
“Excited delirium is a condition that can result in sudden and unexpected death,” said Deborah Mash, a professor of neurology at the University of Miami School of Medicine. “More and more police agencies are recognizing this syndrome, which they’ve seen for decades.”
Amnesty International is skeptical of that explanation for deaths in police custody and wants more extensive studies of the risks posed by Tasers, said Dalia Hashad, director of the organization’s USA Program.
According to Amnesty International’s count, 296 people have died in the United States since July 2001 after they were stunned with Tasers, an electroshock weapon designed to briefly incapacitate suspects.
“For some reason, Tasers seem to have a more negative impact on the mentally ill and those under the influence of narcotics,” she said. “Police officers haven’t been adequately told about these vulnerable populations.”
But Dr. Vincent DiMaio, a forensic pathologist who co-wrote a book on excited delirium, said deaths associated with the condition were documented long before police began using Tasers.
Excited delirium, he said, is “an acute psychotic episode,” usually brought on by schizophrenia or drug abuse, in which a person becomes uncontrollable and seems to develop superhuman strength. Such a person can exert himself until his or her heart stops, he said.
Hashad contends the condition hasn’t been officially recognized by medical and psychiatric organizations. “Until it is, it can seem like a cheap way of covering up a situation,” she said.
Parks, a 39-year-old Dayton man with a history of mental illness, was approached by two Columbus police officers in the bar at the Columbus Renaissance hotel on the night of Dec. 3, 2006. Hotel employees called police to report that a customer in the bar was acting strangely and had swung a cane at a security guard.
Parks ran from Officers Christopher Bailey and Steve Simmons and threatened them with his cane before Simmons tackled him in the lobby just outside the bar. He and Bailey struggled to keep Parks on the ground and attempted to get handcuffs on him. Officer Matthew Deerwester joined the struggle about two minutes after it began.
Last month, an investigation by the division’s critical-incident response team, made up of veteran homicide detectives, found that the officers acted within division policy. A Franklin County grand jury cleared them of criminal wrongdoing in August.
Franklin County Coroner Brad Lewis ruled that heart disease and schizophrenia led to Parks’ death. He said the fight contributed to the death, but he was unable to determine whether the Tasers played a role.
“There were multiple stressors on a diseased heart,” Lewis said last week.
Sgt. Jim Gilbert, the police union president, called Tasers “a very effective tool in saving the lives of officers and others” and said the officers who encountered Parks were “clearly justified” in the level of force they used.
The officers told investigators that Parks was incredibly strong and continued to struggle even as two of the officers pressed Tasers against his body, a technique known as “drive stunning.”
The Dispatch obtained the investigative file through a public-records request.
“I threw my Taser aside when it became clear that it was having no effect and the suspect was continuing to resist,” Bailey said in an interview with investigators.
Although Bailey said he recalled drive-stunning Parks two or three times, a test of the device determined that it had been deployed eight times for a total of 45 seconds. However, Bailey said, there were times that the Taser was triggered but wasn’t in contact with Parks, including once when he checked to make sure it was working.
Tests showed Officer Deerwester deployed his Taser twice, which matched what he told investigators.
Those jolts had “a slight effect” on Parks’ level of resistance, just enough to finally get him handcuffed, Deerwester said.
Both officers said they placed their Tasers against Parks’ buttocks or the back of his thigh.
Although Bailey and Simmons said Parks seemed intoxicated or high on drugs when they approached him, toxicology tests found no alcohol or drugs in his system.
Medical records obtained by investigators showed that Parks had been “consistently diagnosed as suffering from schizophrenia.” In 1997, he was found not guilty by reason of insanity after punching a Springfield, Ohio, police officer who responded to a report that Parks had assaulted a man and damaged his car.
Fred Gittes, a Columbus lawyer who represented Parks’ mother in a lawsuit seeking public records about the death, said he was most troubled by the amount of time it took to get medical assistance for Parks.
A video of the incident captured by a hotel surveillance camera shows that 10 minutes passed from the time Parks was handcuffed until paramedics entered the lobby. Officers at the scene told investigators they tried to get Parks to his feet to walk him outside, but he was, in the words of one sergeant, “dead weight.”
He remained motionless even as officers moved him onto a gurney and waited for paramedics. Columbus Fire Division paramedics reported finding Parks “unresponsive and laying on his (right) side in cuffs and in custody of (police).”
“We didn’t realize there was a medical emergency,” Deerwester told investigators. “He just seemed like the fight was out of him and he was relaxing. It wasn’t until the medics got there and looked at him and told us that we needed to un-handcuff him that we knew that something was wrong with him.”Click here for JEMS.com articles by Dr. Bledsoe.