The Burlington Fire Department will begin tracking its use of ketamine on patients by race after paramedics administered the drug on a Black 14-year-old while he was in police custody in May.
That incident, which was included in a recent police use-of-force summary report, prompted someone to complain to the Burlington Police Commission. The city council's Public Safety Committee is scheduled to discuss the fire department's new protocol at its meeting on Thursday.
According to records obtained by Seven Days, the Burlington Fire Department has administered ketamine — an anesthetic used to "restrain" patients and manage pain — to 86 patients since 2016. But the department only recorded the subject's race four times in those five years, data show. All of those patients were white and between 35 and 74 years old.
Burlington Fire Chief Steven Locke said he began combing ketamine data after the police commission received its complaint about the incident. A use-of-force report reviewed by commissioners in June says police were called to the teen's home after he allegedly robbeda convenience store of hundreds of vape pens while armed with a mallet and blade.
Two officers responded and tried negotiating with the teen to turn over the stolen items. When he refused, the officers forcibly removed one of the vapes from his hands, and the teen hit the officers "with his fists." The officers handcuffed him, and the teen "experienced a behavioral emergency, including screaming, biting, spitting, and violently struggling," the report says.
Paramedics responded and administered 250 milligrams of ketamine to the teen after consulting with his mother and a University of Vermont Medical Center doctor. He was then sent to the emergency room, and the case was referred to the city's Community Justice Center, the use-of-force report says. In the five years of data supplied by the fire department, he's the youngest patient to be given ketamine. The oldest was 92, a woman who was given the drug for an injury to her leg.
The fire department spreadsheet says the teen exhibited signs of "excited/agitated delirium," a controversial syndrome characterized by aggressive behavior, often due to mental illness or substance use. The diagnosis has been used to justify injury or death to people in police custody and has been "disproportionately applied to Black men in police custody," according to the American Psychiatric Association, which does not recognize the syndrome as a true mental condition. The organization issued a position paper last December, urging emergency medical responders to not use the diagnosis "until a clear set of diagnostic criteria are validated."
Locke would not comment on the incident's specifics and declined to answer questions about the use of ketamine because he's not a certified paramedic. He said the department abides by the state's emergency medicine protocols for dispensing drugs, which require a physician's permission to administer ketamine to pediatric patients. He added that his department has not received any complaints about this particular incident.
The Burlington Police Department denied Seven Days' public records request for the official police report, citizen complaint, body camera footage and other records related to the incident, citing confidentiality, "records related to juvenile court diversion" and other exemptions in state law. Mayor Miro Weinberger upheld the department's ruling on appeal late last week.
Police Commissioner Stephanie Seguino declined to discuss the case, saying only that "any incidents involving juveniles deeply concern me."
"When there's a use of force, I think that we as a commission have an obligation to really look at those very carefully," she added. Seguino would not say whether the commission was still investigating the incident.
Seguino said commissioners are also concerned about uses of force against people having mental health episodes and with data that show Black people are disproportionately targets of force in Burlington. According to the commission's 2020 year-end report, Black people comprised 31 percent of those subjected to force despite representing less than 10 percent of the city's population.
After the complaint was filed, Locke contacted the Vermont Department of Health's emergency medical services division and learned that the statewide patient care system does not require providers to record a patient's race. As a result of his inquiry, Locke said, the state will mandate that race be recorded for all medical calls, not just ketamine dosages.
"We appreciate their support for really pushing us to do this," Locke said of the city council's Public Safety Committee, adding, "if it's not mandatory, the data will be just unreliable."