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At least 17 people died in Florida after medics injected sedatives during encounters with police

A vial of ketamine, captured in July 2018. Over the years, the drug has been used as a sedative as well as an alternative treatment for pain and depression.
Teresa Crawford
A vial of ketamine, captured in July 2018. Over the years, the drug has been used as a sedative as well as an alternative treatment for pain and depression.

At least 17 people died in Florida over a decade following a physical encounter with police during which medical personnel also injected them with a powerful sedative, an investigation led by The Associated Press has found.

Three of the fatal incidents occurred in Orlando. Others were reported across the state, from Tallahassee to Tampa to West Palm Beach. Two incidents involved drugs administered by Miami-Dade Fire Rescue paramedics.

The deaths were among more than 1,000 that AP’s investigation documented across the United States of people who died after officers used, not their guns, but physical force or weapons such as Tasers that — like sedatives — are not meant to kill. Medical officials said police force caused or contributed to about half of all deaths.

It was impossible for the AP to determine the role injections may have played in many of the 94 deaths involving sedation that reporters found nationally during the investigation’s 2012-2021 timeframe. Few of those deaths were attributed to the sedation and authorities rarely investigated whether injections were appropriate, focusing more often on the use of force by police and the other drugs in people’s systems.

The idea behind the injections is to calm people who are combative, often due to drugs or a psychotic episode, so they can be transported to the hospital. Supporters say sedatives enable rapid treatment while protecting front-line responders from violence. Critics argue that the medications, given without consent, can be too risky to be administered during police encounters.

Florida was among the states with the most sedation cases, according to the investigation, which the AP did in collaboration with FRONTLINE (PBS) and the Howard Centers for Investigative Journalism.

The AP investigation found that medical officials in Florida played a key role in promoting the use of sedatives to try to prevent violent police incidents. And, in 2006, a grand jury that investigated the cases of people who had died after they were shocked with Tasers in Miami-Dade County recommended squirting the sedative midazolam, better known by its brand name Versed, up their noses.

Miami-Dade paramedics soon adopted this strategy, despite concerns that the drug could cause respiratory depression. Other emergency medical services agencies in Florida later became early adopters of the sedative ketamine.

The Florida cases involved several sedatives, including ketamine, midazolam and an antipsychotic medication called ziprasidone.

AP’s investigation shows that the risks of sedation during behavioral emergencies go beyond any specific drug, said Eric Jaeger, an emergency medical services educator in New Hampshire who has studied the issue and advocates for additional safety measures and training.

“Now that we have better information, we know that it can present a significant danger regardless of the sedative agent used,” he said.

The drugs were often given as treatments for “excited delirium,” an agitated condition linked to drug use or mental illness that medical groups have disavowed in recent years. The controversial syndrome traces its roots to Miami in the 1980s.

This story is part of an ongoing investigation led by The Associated Press in collaboration with the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism programs and FRONTLINE (PBS). The investigation includes the Lethal Restraint interactive story, database and the documentary, “Documenting Police Use Of Force,” premiering April 30 on PBS.

Copyright 2024 WLRN. To see more, visit WLRN.

Ryan J. Foley and Carla K. Johnson | Associated Press