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Vernon Crowe

His needless death… and another useless inquest

In yet another death involving pepper spray, an unidentified Regina police officer has killed a Native man. Vernon Crowe was pepper sprayed inside the ambulance! We weren't there but somehow this does not seem right. What were these cops thinking or were they even...?

Pepper spray not a factor: expert

Regina Police Crest

A pathologist says pepper spray did not contribute to the death of a 32-year-old Regina man who died in a struggle with police and paramedics.

"It was unlikely to be the cause of (Vernon Dale Crowe's) death," Dr. Qiu Yan Li testified Tuesday at the sixth day of an inquest.

A six-person jury is expected to begin deliberations Thursday after hearing from the final witness, an Alberta forensic pathologist, today. Jurors cannot assess blame but can make recommendations to prevent similar deaths. However, no one is bound by law to implement their suggestions.

Crowe died July 10, 2001 just 20 minutes after climbing into an ambulance to be assessed following an epileptic seizure. Paramedics said he was initially co-operative, but became agitated about two minutes later as they attempted to start an intravenous line and hook him up to a heart monitor in preparation for a trip to hospital.

Paramedics sent out three calls for police help. Const. Dean Ross earlier testified that he pepper sprayed Crowe -- who was still struggling despite being handcuffed in the front -- after the officer was unintentionally bitten and head-butted. Both Ross and the paramedics said Crowe appeared to be suffering from a medical problem and wasn't deliberately fighting.

After Crowe was pepper sprayed, he continued wrestling and was injected with a sedative. At that point, three more paramedics and four additional police officers arrived. Crowe was placed on his stomach with his hands cuffed behind his back and his feet bound with bandages, according to police witnesses. Ten minutes later, paramedics discovered he had no pulse.

Li said an exact cause of death is elusive. However, she speculated Crowe likely died from an irregular heart beat, impaired breathing or a combination of the two possibly brought on by the fierce struggle in his confused state -- "excited delirium." She said pepper spray would have added to Crowe's excited condition. The intensity of the struggle was apparent in the multitude of bruises covering his 5-foot-6, 156-pound body, the inquest heard.

"His lung function was likely compromised during the restraint," Li said.

Although excited delirium is often linked to illicit drugs, the only drugs found in Crowe's system were very low levels of anti-seizure medication and an anti-depressant, the jury heard.

Crowe family lawyer Darren Winegarden has suggested Crowe was hog-tied -- bound face-down hand and foot with the two restraints connected -- which would have further impaired his breathing. Police maintain he was not hog-tied, and his feet bound by bandages, not handcuffs. But Li agreed with Winegarden that Crowe had handcuff-like marks on his ankles, and marks consistent with a "ligature" -- in addition to handcuffs -- on his wrists.

Dr. Randy Radford, an emergency room physician, testified it takes a minimum of four people to restrain a combative patient. In hospital, a patient is restrained face up so his breathing is monitored, he said.

The Saskatchewan Coalition Against Racism, which is critical of the inquest process, is planning a vigil for Crowe today.

Man Dies After Cops Pepper-Spray Him

REGINA (CP) - An aboriginal man in the midst of a seizure died Tuesday after being pepper-sprayed by Regina police. An autopsy was performed on Vernon Dale Crowe, 32, on Wednesday morning. Results have yet to be released. "We were engaged in a struggle with this man very shortly before he expired and we want to know what the cause of death was,'' said Regina Police Chief Cal Johnston. Police say paramedics were called Tuesday to pick up a man who was suffering a seizure at the Souls Harbour Mission. On their arrival, the man became combative, so they called police. Police say the man assaulted the first officer on the scene. The officer suffered minor injuries.

"Pepper spray was used to restrain the patient in order that he could be transported to hospital,'' said Staff Sgt. Patrick Duck. Crowe was pepper sprayed inside the ambulance. Duck said once he was restrained, the man's condition rapidly deteriorated. He was taken to hospital but attempts to revive him were unsuccessful and he was declared dead. Regina police and the coroner's officer are investigating. Johnston said officers involved acted professionally. "As much as we know through our investigations, the officers' conduct at the scene were professional and they were following good procedure. Our investigations are not concluded so I can't say 100 per cent definitively but everything indicates that our officers were behaving very appropriately.''

A toxicology expert said the dangers of the substance are often ignored. Joe Cummins, a retired genetics professor at the University of Western Ontario, said last year that diabetics and asthmatics are most at risk. When an individual is in a confined space, the risk increases, he has said. Two Montreal-area men died last July shortly after they were sprayed by police. One of the men had asthma.

Use of pepper spray depends on risk

In the heat of the moment, police officers are called upon to make risk assessments and judgment calls on the use of force within the boundaries of the law, said RCMP Sgt. Jim Lechner.

Pepper spray is one such intervention strategy, he said.

"As part of the training we are constantly reinforcing the proper use of o.c. -- oleoresin capsicum -- and the risk factors associated with deploying the pepper spray, and how to decontaminate someone who has been sprayed," he said.

The controversy surrounding police use of pepper spray was resurrected this week following the death Tuesday of 32-year-old Vernon Dale Crowe, who was involved in a fight with a Regina city police officer in the back of an ambulance.

Crowe was recovering from an apparent epileptic seizure inside the Souls Harbour Mission and was in the process of being transported to the hospital when he became agitated and combative with Emergency Medical Service staff in the back of the ambulance.

When a member of the Regina Police Service tried to restrain Crowe, the man bit and head-butted the officer, according to Police Chief Cal Johnston. The officer then used pepper spray, Johnston said.

Attempts to revive Crowe, who stopped breathing, were unsuccessful and he was pronounced dead on arrival at the Regina General Hospital.

The spokesman for the Saskatchewan Coalition Against Racism (SCAR) described Crowe Thursday as a gentle person and called the use of pepper spray inappropriate. "I think it was an overreaction," said Bob Hughes, who is not the same Bob Hughes who is executive editor of The Leader-Post.

Hughes, a former mental health worker, said physical force is seldom justified when dealing with a combative, disturbed person. "I'd be talking to him and holding him."

Asked if he would do that even if the person were biting him, Hughes said yes.

He said most police officers exercise common sense but said more training is necessary.

Lechner, the resident expert in police defensive tactics with the RCMP, said police officers receive four hours of training on the use of pepper-spray, which is considered a non-lethal police weapon, and must be recertified every three years.

The aerosol spray -- made from an inflammatory agent found in cayenne pepper -- causes an intense burning sensation that last up to 30 minutes, but leaves no long-lasting injuries.

However, persons with certain medical conditions can be adversely affected by the spray, Lechner said, noting that certain risk factors -- such as medical conditions -- are not visible to the eye.

"People who are obese, asthmatic or have heart conditions may react in a bad way,'' he said, explaining officers don't know what medical conditions they are dealing with in these situations.

An autopsy was conducted, but no official cause of death has been released.

Meanwhile, city police are conducting an investigation into the circumstances of Crowe's death and will turn their findings over to the Justice Department and the coroner's office for review.