Hello. My name is Taya Graham and welcome to The Police Accountability Report. As I always make clear from the start, this show has a single purpose, holding the politically powerful institution of policing accountable. And this means going beyond the headlines and delving deeper into the system that makes bad policing possible. Like many of our shows, we like to point out links between law enforcement and the underlying system, which creates troubling alliances, collaborations between cops and often corporations or politicians that incentivize punishments and make for questionable public policy.
And nothing exemplifies this issue more than the case of Elijah McClain. McClain, a self-taught musician who was stopped by Aurora, Colorado police in August of 2019, after a report of a suspicious person. As you can see in this video, police pinned him to the ground and a position that cut off the blood flow to his brain. The compression prompted McClain to vomit and become unresponsive, but instead of offering him medical aid, paramedics did something that has become an all too common response during these type of encounters, which is the subject of our show today. First responders, or EMTs, at the behest of police administered 500 milligrams of ketamine to McClain. That’s right. First responders who are tasked with saving lives pumped a massive dose of strong anesthetic into his diminutive 140 pound body.
The medical examiner, after a controversial meeting with police, ruled his death undetermined. It’s a category which means that other four manners of death could not be ruled in or out. His family and supporters believe this case is a homicide. Since then, McClain’s death has stoked controversy in the city of Aurora and beyond, not solely for the use of controversial restraints that often prove dangerous, but the use of ketamine by law enforcement to subdue people. It should be noted that ketamine is a strong sedative that was initially used to sedate animals. Since then, it’s been approved for human use, but only in limited circumstances and under strict supervision, and mostly as a general anesthetic administered in a hospital.
But recently the drug has emerged as a go-to option for cops looking to handle unruly or mentally incapacitated individuals. But this trend has been met with pushback, as activists and families whose loved ones have suffered the consequences of this policy change have sought to call attention to the dangers of the drug. So, for the next two shows, we’re going to take a deep dive into the politics and pharmacology of ketamine. We’re going to examine the trends of how rapidly its use has grown and the science, which contradicts the assurances of law enforcement that it’s safe to use. And we’re going to speak to two people who are intimately familiar with the dangers and pitfalls of the drug.
But before I get to all that, I want to check in with my reporting partner, Stephen Janis, who’s been looking into the history of ketamine use and how much its use has accelerated over time. It’s a fundamental question that we discovered is much more difficult to answer than it should be. Stephen, thank you so much for joining me.
Stephen Janis: Taya, thanks for having me. I appreciate it.
Taya Graham: So I think the first question that has to be answered is what exactly is ketamine and how is it intended to be used? And more importantly, what uses are actually approved?
Stephen Janis: Well, it’s interesting. Ketamine was first an animal sedative, as you pointed out earlier in the show, but also then became a general anesthesia used mostly in a hospital setting, supervised by a doctor to induce anesthesia in people to assist in operations. All the uses that we’re seeing with law enforcement or in terms of depression and other things that it’s been used for are all off-label uses, which means they’re not approved by the FDA, but in fact, they have to be done only under the supervision of a doctor. So it’s very unusual that police departments and officers are telling people to administer ketamine, considering that it’s a very dangerous substance that really sedates your respiratory system and can cause hallucinations and all sorts of other side effects.
Taya Graham: It seems that much of this use is tied to a faulty medical concept called excited delirium. You’ve had some experience with this alleged scientific theory and its ties to questionable law enforcement uses. Can you tell us a little about it?
Stephen Janis: Well, when I was doing investigations into taser deaths, we had a lot of taser deaths in Maryland. One thing that would come up consistently in the autopsies was not cardiac arrhythmia, which is what a taser causes, in other words, your heart rhythm to become interrupted and to be fatal, was this thing called excited delirium. They were attributing taser deaths to excited delirium. So I really pushed our medical examiner. He gave me a book that really was a concoction of fiction, that said excited delirium was a medical or a psychological problem that existed in the 19th century in people who had been put inside sanatoriums. So it was really, really weird and junk science. So now people are saying, and we can overhear in conversation with officers, that they’re administering ketamine because people are going through “excited delirium”, which is really, really difficult to understand because it shows how disentangled the use of ketamine, or disconnected the use of ketamine is from actual medical science, because if they’re using excited delirium to justify it, it makes no sense at all.
Taya Graham: Ketamine was first approved as an anesthetic, but there has been some pushback from doctors who know a great deal about them, namely anesthesiologists. What have they said and what does it say about the use of ketamine?
Stephen Janis: Well, the American Association of Anesthesiologists has literally put out a statement saying they completely oppose the use of ketamine in law enforcement situations. They said specifically that it’s too dangerous, that it needs to be done under the supervision of a doctor in a hospital, and should not be administered ad hoc to people who are in the field. And they’ve come up pretty forcefully against the use of it at all.
Taya Graham: Stephen’s reporting raises a series of troubling questions. Most importantly, how did such a dangerous tool end up in the hands of cops and how did a drug that has not specifically gone through the rigorous process of testing for use in dangerous situations, become a go-to chemical restraint? And what, if any, pushback is occurring among the people who are tasked with overseeing police? To answer these questions, we spoke to two people engaged in the battle over its use. Our first guest is a City Councilwoman whose personal experience with ketamine prompted her to ask some tough questions about the drug, and it’s both the pushback and the information she obtained which will be the topic of our conversation with her. Her name is Anita Springsteen, and she’s a Councilwoman in Lakewood, Colorado, and her fight against the use of ketamine came from firsthand experience with its use.
As you can see in this video you’re watching now, Springsteen’s boyfriend was arrested by police after a nearby assisted living facility alleged that he was harassing the staff. The arrest was controversial because Springsteen disputes the account of law enforcement that he was in fact a nuisance, but more importantly, she believes that the use of ketamine was uncalled for, given that her significant other complied with police as shown in this video. Since the incident, she has tried to scrutinize how often the drug is used, the criteria for using it, and why it has become so commonplace. And what has happened to her during that process is revealing, not just about how law enforcement works, but the political peril of asking uncomfortable questions. Anita, thank you so much for joining us.
Anita Springsteen: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.
Taya Graham: So tell me, you are on the Lakewood Colorado City Council and have advocated for law enforcement reform. What kind of pushback have you received?
Anita Springsteen: It has been difficult, to say the least. Just last Monday, I had explained to Council during my report that the producers at 60 Minutes had reached out to me and interviewed me regarding ketamine in Colorado because they’re doing a piece on Elijah McClain. And I made note that I’m probably the first City Councilor in Lakewood to ever be contacted by 60 Minutes. Regardless of how that story turns out, I feel like I’m in a fight trying to change the world. Everybody around me is silent. And I said, “The silence is deafening.” So, that’s the pushback I’m getting in Lakewood. I think they are making progress in Aurora where Elijah McClain died. They actually put some legislation in place this last week to put a moratorium on the use of ketamine by their paramedics. And that is what I’ve been asking for in Lakewood since June, when I first made a statement about this issue and what happened in my particular situation.
Taya Graham: So how have you seen police controller influence the City Council?
Anita Springsteen: I guess I’m a little confused as to why it has been so difficult to get people to speak out, given the state of current events with regard to protesting and how that has built over the summer. I’m not quite clear what role the police union plays. I’m still trying to learn my way around the city. There is certainly room for improvement, and we know that. We know that because Elijah McClain died and we know that because they are still administering ketamine all over the state of Colorado. So this is our opportunity to take a close look at what are the problems? How do we fix it?
In January, my boyfriend was arrested outside of my house, and I won’t go into the details of what happened other than to say he did not break any laws, but he was very calm, saying, “I will comply 100%,” walked himself to a gurney, and then they gave him ketamine. And my head spun because I was trying to wrap my head around in that moment, what just happened? I didn’t even know this was a thing. I didn’t know people could inject somebody that way, especially if they’re being calm and they’re restrained and they’re voicing compliance. And so right away, I began my research and I found out about Elijah McLean back in January and I found out what they gave my boyfriend. Then I wasn’t quite sure how to address that issue because I was a brand new Councilor. I did not want to appear that I was trying to influence anything at all because to add insult to injury, even though he had to go on life support and be taken to the hospital after this, they charged him with criminal charges. For a few months, I was confused as to what to do.
Then in May, what had led to this situation was a neighborhood problem we’ve had for some time, and the neighborhood problem carried over onto some of my neighbors. So I went to the City Manager for help with the neighborhood problem. A few days later a reporter from channel four was knocking on my front door, and the intention was to do a hit piece on me and my boyfriend and try his case in the media. I do not know how that occurred exactly. I know that the people who had accused my boyfriend had called the mayor around that same time as well. So I’m still trying to get to the bottom of what happened there. But one of the things they tried to say on the news piece was that I had lied to the police, and that’s just not true. That didn’t happen. So I felt like I don’t know who, I don’t know if the Police Department is involved, I don’t know if it’s just city leadership, but somebody decided that they were going to use this as an opportunity to remove me from City Council.
Around that same time was when George Floyd protesting started happening and the Elijah McClain story started coming out more. And I thought, “This is my opportunity, while I’m still a city leader to get this story out there, that ketamine is a problem statewide.” So, I made a statement and made much more public because I think there wasn’t a lot of understanding about the extent of the abuse of this and the extent to which law enforcement influences the use of ketamine. A lot of people say, “Well, it’s the paramedics giving the ketamine,” but that wasn’t my personal experience. My personal experience was that the police are influencing that decision in many different ways.
Why are they calling the paramedics in the first place? In this particular circumstance with Jeremiah, the paramedic only spoke to him for about 60 seconds and then ignored him and talked to the police instead. They claimed that there was an assault, and there was no assault. So that goes into a medical decision as well. A lot of people want to say that maybe my experience is not as … or maybe what I am trying to do is not legitimate because I have this personal connection to it, but my response to that would be, I believe that it’s even more profound because as a policy maker, I got to stand there and witness it firsthand and what the problem is. And I got to read these reports that are inaccurate and don’t fit with the video. So I would say that there are so many people out there who don’t have that advantage of having all those things to bring out their story, so I want to bring out all of their stories for them.
Taya Graham: So how often is ketamine used in Colorado?
Anita Springsteen: If they are going to claim people are in excited delirium and have lost their mind to the extent that they cannot make a medical decision for themselves, somebody is making that for them. Somebody is putting a date rape drug into their veins for them. Then they shouldn’t be charging people with criminal charges because it’s sort of a state of temporary insanity by their own definition. So how can you form the mental culpability to commit crimes in that circumstance? So what I have said is they can’t have it both ways. Either it’s medical malpractice because this person is not really in excited delirium and they’re dosing them with ketamine anyway, or it’s malicious prosecution because they’re prosecuting people who are the equivalent of somebody driving down the highway and they have a seizure or a heart attack and accidentally kill somebody in their car. They are not guilty of a crime. It was a medical emergency.
So this letter has gone out there to the Governor, and I have asked him to dismiss or pardon all crimes that have been charged on the 902 cases where people have been dosed with ketamine. I haven’t had any response yet, but I think it’s a very valid argument, especially since ketamine is known to erase people’s memories. So how can they even defend themselves in these cases?
Taya Graham: So I think Anita’s story makes something clear, how the imperative of law enforcement to impose control over our bodies corrupts the institutions and processes designed to protect us. Given the explosion of the use of ketamine by police, it seems odd there’s so little data or study or even justification for its use. It raises the question of how this powerful anesthetic approved for use in hospital settings only has suddenly become a suitable drug to administer at the discretion of cops who hardly qualify as medical experts. In fact, even the State Health Department confirmed there were 902 reported instances of Colorado paramedics administering ketamine from 2018 to 2020, and almost 17% of these cases had complications, including cardiac arrest and oxygen deprivation.
Perhaps the whistleblower lawsuit by a paramedic can shed some light on the situation. His name is Joseph Paul Baker, and he sued the city of Woodbury, Minnesota, because he felt pressured by cops to administer ketamine to people who didn’t need it. In fact, Baker alleges in the suit when he pushed back, he faced retaliation from his superiors for not following the orders of officers who demanded he administer ketamine, despite his assessment that doing so would be dangerous. City officials there would not respond to his claims and the lawsuit is still pending, but it shows why the story of the rise and use of ketamine by law enforcement is so troubling. That’s because many of the situations where ketamine has been used with harmful results occurred when cops had already escalated a less than urgent situation.
In all the aforementioned cases like McClain’s and McKnight’s, police were called for mundane reasons, but when they proved either unable or incapable of deescalation, they turned to ketamine. The point is, like many other policies and tactics of law enforcement, the root justification for ketamine has nothing to do with public safety or enforcing the law. The experience of the Councilwoman and the lawsuit from a whistleblower reveal in part the reasons for the use of this dangerous drug has grown behind the scenes with so little public scrutiny, it provides the cops and the system they serve with another tool of compliance. That is another way to subdue, arrest and detain citizens against their will.
But even more troubling is unlike other forms of restraint, this tool is a narcotic of the mind. In a sense, it represents a unique aspect of law enforcement we talk about quite often on this show, and that it’s usually ignored by the mainstream media. Remember, the police and their supporters are constantly bolstered by the endless array of cop-aganda that permeates the mainstream media. Our massive and unprecedented law enforcement industrial complex uses the instruments of media and symbolism to persuade us to comply. And what could be more aligned with the efforts to induce our consent than a drug, which at its core, separates our mind from our body? What could be a more appropriate symbol of the current state of over-policing that we have documented on this show, than a drug which puts our conscience into an involuntary slumber and makes our minds captive to a chemical?
It’s a troubling and symbiotic relationship between pharmacology and punishment that we will continue to investigate in order to understand how and why it is happening at all. I’d like to thank our guest, Councilwomen Springsteen for joining us today. Thank you so much for your time.
Anita Springsteen: Thank you so much. And thank you for the work you’re doing. I think it’s going to make a lot of change in the world, so I appreciate you.
Taya Graham: And of course, I have to think intrepid reporter, Stephen Janis, for his investigative reporting, writing and editing on this piece. Thank you, Stephen.
Stephen Janis: Thanks so much, Taya. I appreciate it.
Taya Graham: And I would be remiss if I didn’t thank friend of the show, [Nollie D 00:21:26], for her support. Thanks Nollie D. And I want you watching to know that if you have evidence of police misconduct or brutality, please share it with us and we might be able to investigate. Please reach out to us. You can email us tips privately at firstname.lastname@example.org and share your evidence of police misconduct. You can also message us at Police Accountability Report on Facebook or Instagram or at Eyes On Police on Twitter. And of course you can message me directly @TayasBaltimore on Twitter or Facebook, and please like and comment. I do read your comments and appreciate them, and I try to answer your questions whenever I can. My name is Taya Graham, and I’m your host of the Police Accountability Report. Please be safe out there.
Production: Stephen Janis
Post-Production: Stephen Janis