The Police Use of Ketamine in Arrests Faces Scrutiny
Ketamine is commonly used as an anesthetic in hospitals and veterinary clinics. It is typically regarded as safe if the proper dosage is administered, but it can have severe and lethal side effects in certain situations. Ketamine blocks pain receptors in the brain, often leading to people either falling unconscious or entering a trancelike state (The Cut). Emergency medical workers often use ketamine to subdue suspects at the scene of an arrest if they appear to be “violently agitated” or uncooperative.
Paramedics and first responders often describe suspects as “violently agitated” to justify their unnecessary use of sedatives. Ketamine is meant to subdue someone actively resisting arrest, but paramedics and first responders have frequently misused it. In many cases, suspects have been rendered helpless, with their hands cuffed behind their backs, yet they are injected with ketamine for illegitimate reasons. In some cases, it is believed that police officers involve themselves in determining whether or not ketamine is administered at the scene of an arrest (The Denver Post).
•Call or email to demand a temporary ban on the use of ketamine in Aurora, Colorado, is put in place until at least 30 days after Elijah McClain’s case is complete. A council meeting to discuss the ban will be held on September 14, 2020, at 7:30 p.m.
•Sign and share the Justice for Elijah petition to hold the officers and paramedics accountable for his death.
•If you have been injected with ketamine or have used ketamine as an EMT or paramedic in partnership with law enforcement? Share your story in this survey.
For example, Joseph Baker, a former Minnesota paramedic, recently spoke out against ketamine for law enforcement purposes. Baker filed a whistleblower lawsuit in which he claimed that police officers attempted to coerce him into administering ketamine during an arrest. In an interview, Baker stated that the man being arrested clearly had a mental health illness and was not resisting arrest enough to justify using a sedative. After refusing to comply with the officers’ wishes, Baker felt that he was practically being pushed out of his job. Throughout the lawsuit, Baker emphasized that the relationship between police officers and Emergency Medical Service (EMS) workers has allowed officers to feel comfortable using coercive tactics to encourage paramedics to administer ketamine (The Intercept).
Unfortunately, Elijah McClain’s entanglement with the Aurora Police Department is one of many arrests that ended in unwarranted sedation. Max Johnson, a diabetic Black man from Minneapolis, is yet another example of how ketamine can have dangerous effects. On July 26, 2020, Johnson began having a seizure due to low blood sugar. Abby Wulfing, Johnson’s girlfriend, called 911 and informed the dispatcher that Johnson was seizing, prompting them to send Emergency Medical Service (EMS) workers to evaluate the situation. Wulfing says that the EMS responders seemed to believe that Johnson’s seizures were caused by illegal drugs, even after explaining the actual cause.
After continuously questioning Max’s sobriety, they began to physically restrain him and call the police for backup. After seven minutes of pleading with the EMS workers to administer glucagon to combat Johnson’s low blood sugar, they finally obliged. Following the glucagon, the workers injected Johnson with 500 milligrams of ketamine. Wulfing stated that there was no need to inject Johnson with ketamine because he was already in a calm, post-seizure state once the EMS workers arrived. The dosage of ketamine put Johnson in a hospital intensive care unit on a ventilator for two days. Wulfing believes that the treatment Johnson received from the EMS workers was heavily influenced by the fact that he is a Black man (Star Tribune).
Both McClain and Johnson were unnecessarily injected with ketamine and endured severe health complications as a result. A sedative was unnecessary in either case, considering that both men were following police orders and remaining calm in highly stressful situations. While McClain and Johnson’s cases are entirely separate, the parallels between the two are not anomalous; they indicate a larger issue with the unwarranted use of ketamine injections.
For decades, law enforcement has labeled people of color as ‘aggressive’ and ‘uncooperative’ to justify their unnecessary use of force. While ketamine is not a form of physical force, it can have similar or worse effects on one’s well-being. McClain and Johnson are only two examples of how police officers and paramedics unjustifiably use sedatives that ultimately lead to severe health complications.
It is imperative that we hold police departments and EMS workers accountable for misusing ketamine as a tool of brutality on all people, specifically people of color. We cannot allow officers to further perpetuate the notion that Black people are disobliging and aggressive with law enforcement.
The symbiotic relationship between police officers and paramedics can lead to officers feeling comfortable with coercing paramedics into administering ketamine, therefore putting more people at risk of experiencing the harmful side effects of the sedative.
While the use of ketamine for law enforcement purposes is not limited to people of color, it is yet another way that police are wrongly labeling them as “aggressive” and “agitated.”
The use of ketamine is usually not necessary or justified.