Skip to ArticleSkip to Radioplayer

Our members keep us going.

JOIN TODAY!
Oct 31, 2020

Stopping a movement

Co-produced with PRX Logo

In what may be the largest protest movement in the nation’s history, millions of Americans haven taken to the streets this year to protest racism and police brutality. In response, the federal government cracked down. On a conference call with governors in early June, President Donald Trump said, “It’s a movement that if you don’t put it down, it’ll get worse and worse.” In the weeks and months since, U.S. attorneys brought federal charges against 340 people attending protests in at least 31 states – and the vast majority of the crimes relate to property damage. Reporter Anjali Kamat investigates why the federal government is prosecuting so many cases that normally would be handled in state or county courts. 

In the second segment, reporters Michael de Yoanna and Rae Solomon from KUNC public radio investigate the use of powerful sedatives during police stops. This phenomenon first caught the reporters’ attention when body camera footage went viral over the summer, showing 23-year-old Elijah McClain being wrestled to the ground by police and injected with ketamine by paramedics in Aurora, Colorado. McClain went into cardiac arrest on the way to the hospital and died a few days later. McClain’s name became a national rallying cry and, as we report, his story exposes a pattern of paramedics across the nation doling out potentially dangerous doses of sedatives during police stops.  

The final segment looks at nationwide calls to defund the police. Austin, Texas, has seen the most aggressive defunding effort of any large city in the country. In August, the City Council unanimously voted to cut its police budget by about a third. The plan would slash $150 million from police and reallocate funds to areas such as public health and homelessness prevention. Reveal host Al Letson talks with Chas Moore, founder and executive director of the Austin Justice Coalition, about how local activists have pushed for change.

Listen: The uprising

Listen: The secret list of convicted cops

Read: ‘I have to be out there. They’re killing us.’

Credits

Reported by: Anjali Kamat, Michael de Yoanna and Rae Solomon

Produced by: Anjali Kamat, Michael de Yoanna, Rae Solomon, Stan Alcorn and Patrick Michels

Lead producer: Stan Alcorn

Edited by: Brett Myers

Production manager: Amy Mostafa

Production assistance: Brett Simpson

Sound design and music by: Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda

Mixing: Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda

Executive producer: Kevin Sullivan

Host: Al Letson

Illustration by: Molly Mendoza

Special thanks: Thanks to Esther Kaplan for editorial help on the story about federal prosecutions of protesters. Thanks to Brian Larson and Jackie Hai at KUNC in Greeley, Colorado, for partnering on the story about sedations. And thanks also to Brandon Garrett at the Wilson Center for Science and Justice.

Transcript

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal's radio stories is the audio.

Al Letson:

Hey, hey, hey. It's Al, and before we get started today, we have a favor to ask of you. Reveal is conducting our annual audience survey. Why? We want to learn more about you, what you like about the show, what you don't like, how much of a raise you think Al deserves, which that'd be nice. Important things like that. So just text "survey" to 474747 to get started. Your feedback really does help us. Again, just text the word "survey" to 474747, and thanks.

Audio:

Support for Reveal comes from Allbirds. Allbirds is on a mission to leave the planet in better shape than they found it. Their products aren't just comfy and purposefully designed but also carbon neutral from offsetting their carbon emissions. They make shoes from premium natural materials like the all new Wool Piper, a twist on the classic lace-up sneaker. With Allbirds, feel confident knowing you're wearing a product that's doing right by your feet and the planet. Learn more about their sustainable practices and find your pair of Wool Pipers at Allbirds.com today.

Support for this episode comes from NationBuilder, software for leaders. Whether you're advocating for your community, supporting a campaign, running a nonprofit or even running for office, there are people out there fired up to help you. NationBuilder can help you inspire them to take action. It puts your website, CRM, communications and fundraising tools all in one place so you can focus on your cause. Go to nationbuilder.com/prx, start a 14-day free trial and get an additional month of service free.

Al Letson:

From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. We're at the end of a political campaign season that took place alongside what may be the largest protest movement in this country's history. Tens of millions of Americans have taken to the streets to oppose racism and police brutality.

But President Donald Trump reacted in a way that was predictable. He made his views about policing clear back in 1989 when he took out a full-page ad in four New York newspapers. It was in reaction to the arrest of the Central Park Five, now known as the Exonerated Five. They were Black and Latino teenagers who would be charged, convicted and eventually exonerated for the rape of a jogger in Central Park.

Trump's ad called for the death penalty. But more than that it called for politicians to give police departments back their power to unshackle them from the constant chant of police brutality, something Trump repeated throughout his presidential campaign in 2016.

Audio:

Their power's been so taken away. They don't want to lose their jobs. They're afraid. They can't even talk to people anymore. Can't even talk to people.

Al Letson:

After his election, he told a crowd of police officers when they arrest people and throw them in the back of the van ...

Audio:

Please don't be too nice. Like when you guys put somebody in the car and you're protecting their head, the way you put their hand over? Like, don't hit their head, and they've just killed somebody? Don't hit their head? I said, "You can take their hand away, okay?"

Al Letson:

But as president, it was more than just words. His Department of Justice backed off efforts to investigate and force change in local police departments. Then on May 25th, Minneapolis Officer Derek Chauvin put his knee on the neck of George Floyd for more than nine minutes until he was dead.

Reveal's Anjali Kamat has been looking into not only what Trump and the Department of Justice said but also what they did in response to the protest that followed. Here's Anjali.

Anjali Kamat:

This summer there were protests in more than 2,000 cities. One of them was Erie, Pennsylvania, a town that Trump won by two points in 2016. Melquan Barnett grew up there.

Melquan Barnett:

I never seen nothing like this. My whole 28 years of living I never seen nothing like this going on. I never seen it on TV. I never seen it in my neighborhood.

Anjali Kamat:

Melquan wasn't an activist before the protest. He used to work as a forklift operator, but then he lost his job last year. Since then, he says he's been coaching the Hurricanes, his son's football team. He's wearing their jersey when we talk over a videoconference.

Melquan Barnett:

I actually got his name on the back of my shirt too.

Anjali Kamat:

Oh, can you turn around and show me?

Melquan Barnett:

See if you could see it.

Anjali Kamat:

"Love, Dad." Is that what is says?

Melquan Barnett:

Uh-uh (negative). It says "King Dad." That's what we call when we call him "king."

Anjali Kamat:

But the smile he has when he talks about his family and his neighborhood, it disappears when I asked him about the city as a whole.

What's it like? I've never been to your area, so ...

Melquan Barnett:

I cannot explain it without sounding rude. Some people might call it a little racist town. From my eyes and from what I seen growing up, it was a lot of police brutality and being targeted.

Anjali Kamat:

Melquan says he was stopped and asked to show ID so many times he knew officers by sight. So when he heard there was going to be a Black Lives Matter protest in Erie the weekend after George Floyd's death, he decided to go.

Melquan Barnett:

So it was like, "Man, I want to be a part of that. I want to be out there protesting and creating change, so when 20 years come I can sit there and tell my kids or my grandchildren and tell them that I was a part of that." You know what I mean? If we don't stand up or say anything, who's to say what's going to happen in the next few years? Things are going to be real bad. Real bad.

Anjali Kamat:

The protest started at 6:00 PM on Saturday, May 30th with hundreds of people linking arms and chanting at passing cars. Melquan arrived around 9:00 PM as a large crowd was gathered outside the police station. Tensions escalated quickly. Erie police say some protestors threw fireworks at officers, and they responded with teargas and mace.

What did it feel like to be out there?

Melquan Barnett:

It was like kind of the police adding more fuel to the fire. They squad up, all kitted up like they about to go to war. For what? You keep pushing somebody, eventually something's going to happen. You know what I mean?

Anjali Kamat:

Just as this was happening, on the other side of town Hannah Kirby was at home with her husband. She'd grown up in Waynesburg, a small rural town three hours away, and then moved to Erie for college.

Hannah Kirby:

For me, it's the, quote/unquote, "big city."

Anjali Kamat:

Three years ago she opened a small independent coffee shop in the heart of downtown. It's called Ember and Forge.

Hannah Kirby:

I felt very disconnected, and so it was really just looking for a way to engage directly with the city. What better way to engage with the community than over coffee?

Anjali Kamat:

Hannah didn't go to the protest that night.

Hannah Kirby:

One of my employees did go, and she was like, "Wow, it was so beautiful. It was really community coming together, really. It just felt really powerful."

Anjali Kamat:

A few hours later, Hannah was falling in and out of sleep when the same employee called back.

Hannah Kirby:

Like, "I think something happened at the coffee shop." Someone who was following on social media sent her a video.

Anjali Kamat:

The video was shot by someone across the street, and you can only see people's backs. But you see a woman approaching and kicking through the window of a coffee shop.

Audio:

Don't get caught. Oh, don't cut yourself.

Anjali Kamat:

Then a man approaches the broken window and suddenly a fireball appears inside.

Audio:

Oh! Oh! Oh, sick.

That's [inaudible].

Hannah Kirby:

Really, all you could see is the glow. Certainly in that moment that was gut-wrenching because in my brain, that's it. Like the building is going to go up.

Audio:

Good evening. I'm Brian Wilk. We interrupt our regular programming to bring you a special report as chaos is filling the streets of downtown Erie right now.

Audio:

We had fireworks in the street.

Audio:

Bashing out every window.

Audio:

They believe professional rioters came from in from out of town.

Anjali Kamat:

There's no evidence that professional rioters came in from out of town. What did happen? People spray painted City Hall, 21 buildings had some windows smashed, four fires were lit and a few parking meters were damaged or stolen.

This was that first major night of national protests after George Floyd's death. The overwhelming majority of them that weekend and throughout the summer were peaceful without any property destruction. But when President Trump spoke from the Rose Garden on Monday, June 1st, he focused on the actions of what he called "violent mobs."

Audio:

These are not acts of peaceful protest. These are acts of domestic terror. I am mobilizing all available federal resources, civilian and military, to stop the rioting and looting, to end the destruction and arson and to protect the rights of law-abiding Americans including your Second Amendment rights.

Anjali Kamat:

The morning after the protest in Erie, Hannah came in to the coffee shop. She didn't know what to expect.

Hannah Kirby:

We had a couple broken windows. I think one, two, three broken windows. Looked around, realized like, "Okay, this is not that bad."

Anjali Kamat:

She found the fire hadn't spread throughout the building. In fact, it hadn't even gone beyond the table where it was initially set.

Hannah Kirby:

Really, the only thing that we ended up having to fix was the table that had some burn marks on it, and ended up having a gentleman that does woodworking in town offer to fix it for free.

Anjali Kamat:

Hannah didn't have to pay for any of the damage. She says her landlord's insurance covered the cost of the windows. She only closed the coffee shop for one day, Monday, and that's the day police announced they had a suspect.

Audio:

This individual is a 28-year-old male. Individual is Melquan Barnett. We have an active warrant and we are currently ...

Anjali Kamat:

Can you say any more about what happened that night around the coffee shop?

Melquan Barnett:

No, I can't. I was informed by my lawyer not to really be touching on those things.

Anjali Kamat:

Melquan pled not guilty, and his case is still pending. But here's what we do know. The police say they took that video that showed the back of the man who lit the fire and claimed they matched his clothes and hair with another video that they say shows Melquan. He says he found out when his mother called him and told him the police were looking for him.

Melquan Barnett:

So I called up my lawyer. I let him know what was going on and that I wanted to turn myself in.

Anjali Kamat:

And two days later that's what he did. He was charged by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania with five felonies and a misdemeanor, from arson to reckless endangerment. Then he was taken to the Erie County Prison. Four hours later, everything changed.

Melquan Barnett:

I was in my cell, which had a TV on a angle that was always being put up on the news.

Audio:

A man wanted for arson after Saturday night's riot in downtown Erie is taken into federal custody.

Melquan Barnett:

That's when I first seen it, that the States was dropping the case and the feds was picking up.

Anjali Kamat:

The United States Attorney's Office was taking over. They charged Melquan with the federal crime of arson.

Melquan Barnett:

I'm just sitting there thinking, like, "Man, this is going to be badder than I thought. This is going to get darker and darker." That's all I kept thinking.

Anjali Kamat:

You might think of a federal prosecution as a major undertaking with rooms full of investigators poring over pages of tax returns and bank statements. So how did they end up going after an alleged coffee shop arsonist? Hannah Kirby got a clue when she was cleaning up a couple days after the protest. An FBI agent and a federal arson investigator stopped by and started asking questions about her coffee cups.

Hannah Kirby:

Which I thought was, "Oh, that's a strange question to be asking me. I don't know what this has to do with a fire, but okay."

Anjali Kamat:

The cups have the Ember and Forge logo on the side, which ironically is a tiny geometric fire. But the FBI was interested in them for another reason.

Hannah Kirby:

These plastic cups we import from Buffalo, New York.

Anjali Kamat:

She buys the cups from out of state.

And that's what what makes you an interstate business?

Hannah Kirby:

Yep. A plastic cup.

Anjali Kamat:

That plastic cup along with online gift cards and social media pages are central to the federal prosecutor's case. That's what makes the arson a federal crime. They're arguing that the fire disrupted interstate commerce.

Hannah Kirby:

We are really as local as we can be. That is our goal, is to be as local as possible. How could we possibly be an interstate business?

Jonathan Smith:

Right. So, I mean, that's just a ruse.

Anjali Kamat:

Jonathan Smith is a former federal prosecutor who now runs the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights.

Jonathan Smith:

If something in commerce crosses state borders, then the federal government has an interest in the prosecution, so it's not a very high bar.

Anjali Kamat:

It's not a very high bar. Jonathan says federal prosecutors often use this technique to take cases federal, but rarely for this kind of crime.

Jonathan Smith:

When you see arsons happen across the country all the time, and unless they're hate crimes, I don't see the federal government involved in an arson charge.

Anjali Kamat:

What's even more unusual: the number of cases like Melquan's that are out there. Reveal has been tracking these prosecutions. Since the end of May, federal prosecutors in at least 31 states have brought 340 cases against people at the protests. The majority relate to some form of property damage. The most common charge is arson.

What's the maximum sentencing you could get?

Melquan Barnett:

I believe it's 20 years.

Anjali Kamat:

When Hannah, the coffee shop owner, heard Melquan could be facing a five to 20 year sentence, she was stunned. After a few weeks of agonizing, she wrote an open letter to the mayor. She thought that local courts should handle the case and that federal charges were out of hand.

Hannah Kirby:

In what world is a human life valued at less than a building, a window? I mean, in Melquan's case we're going to value 10 years of his life at less than a tabletop that got charred? You have an engineering background. There's a math component and these two things are not equal.

Anjali Kamat:

I wanted to know the Department of Justice was putting its resources into bringing this kind of punishment to protestors across the country. I started with US Attorney for Western Pennsylvania, Scott Brady. He's the federal prosecutor who took Melquan's case and a dozen other protest-related cases. He wouldn't do an interview but he did talk to a local TV station about the protest.

Audio:

We are not going to let this get out of hand, and this is not what First Amendment lawful assembly and protest is supposed to be.

Anjali Kamat:

There's another reason why Brady may be prosecuting Melquan's case: His boss wanted it. The weekend Melquan went to the protest, Attorney General William Barr issued two statements claiming that the protests had been hijacked by violent radical elements. Barr was sending a message to the public and to federal prosecutors. He said, "We will enforce these laws." In a call with governors that Monday, he described exactly what to look for.

Audio:

Go after the troublemakers. Go after the guys who are cuddling the bricks and the Molatov cocktails. There's very few people running around lighting fires. They have to be taken off the streets and arrested and processed.

Anjali Kamat:

President Trump was on that call too, and here, away from the cameras, he gave the clearest explanation yet of the reason for these prosecutions. He said he wanted to stop a movement.

Audio:

It's like a movement, and it's a movement that if you don't put it down it'll get worse and worse. This is like Occupy Wall Street. It was a disaster until one day somebody said, "That's enough."

Anjali Kamat:

Hours after that call, the National Guard and Park Police teargassed demonstrators in front of the White House so the president could do a photo op in front of a church. In the next two weeks, federal prosecutors from Brooklyn to San Diego had charged 100 protestors. And a month after that call, the president sent federal troops into Portland over the objections of local and state officials. Some of those federal agents grabbed protestors off the streets in unmarked vans.

Jonathan Smith again, from the Washington Lawyers' Committee and Civil Rights:

Audio:

It's part of a coordinated larger effort to stop people from being in the streets calling for a change in policing. If you look at the entire course of conduct of the federal government, it is to stop people from demonstrating. That sends a chill throughout the entire foundation of our government.

Anjali Kamat:

Melquan was denied bail and spent three months in the Erie County Prison before a judge agreed to let him out.

Melquan Barnett:

This is rough stuff, man. Like I tell some people who want a vision on how jail is, I tell them all the time: "Man, hey. Go lock yourself in a bathroom and don't come out."

Anjali Kamat:

Now he's at his mother's house waiting for his trial to start and living under a severe form of house arrest.

Melquan Barnett:

Like my son, he just wants me to come in the backyard and toss the ball around. I got to tell him I ain't even allowed outside. That kills me, man.

Anjali Kamat:

Melquan says his experience this summer has changed how he feels about protests.

Melquan Barnett:

Like we should've been a good story, but now it's turned sour, so it's like I'm not into the protest and I don't want to see a protest. I don't want to be a part of a protest. Leave me out of it. You know what I mean? And this is not how I felt at the beginning.

Anjali Kamat:

Melquan's case won't go to trial this year. Neither will most of the other 300-plus cases. Instead, they'll move forward some time after the presidential inauguration, which may bring a change at the Department of Justice. Whether the election might have an impact on these prosecutions remains an open question.

Al Letson:

That's Reveal's Anjali Kamat. She had help from Stan Alcorn. This year's protests have already had consequences that no crackdown and no election can change.

In Colorado, the death of a young Black man named Elijah McClain is being re-investigated. In the process, it's exposing an increasingly common practice of injecting people with powerful drugs at the time of their arrest. That's next on Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

Audio:

In the 1980s, America was clear-cutting the last of its old-growth forests, but then a small group of protestors started to stand in the way. Timber Wars is a podcast about how the fight over ancient trees transformed not just the Pacific Northwest but the very way we think about forests, and it divided the nation, turning environmental conflicts into culture wars. Timber Wars is a production of Oregon Public Broadcasting. Subscribe now in Apple Podcasts, NPR One, Spotify and at opb.org.

Support for Reveal comes from Allbirds. Allbirds is on a mission to leave the planet in better shape than they found it. Their products aren't just comfy and purposefully designed but also carbon neutral from offsetting their carbon emissions. They make shoes from premium natural materials like the all new Wool Piper, a twist on the classic lace-up sneaker. With Allbirds, feel confident knowing you're wearing a product that's doing right by your feet and the planet. Learn more about their sustainable practices and find your pair of Wool Pipers at Allbirds.com today.

Maria Feldman:

Hi. I'm Maria Feldman, the director of operations at Reveal. I'm part of a big team of people who are behind the scenes, that make this show possible each week. We have staff all across the country from Tampa to Portland to Oakland, California, and I help set up systems that keep us all connected. Most importantly, I process payroll, so I make sure we all get paid.

We're a nonprofit organization and members like you keep us going. Text the word "reveal" to 474747 to show your support. You can text "stop" at any time, standard data rates apply. Again, to support this work, just text the word "reveal" to 474747. Thank you.

Al Letson:

From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. We just heard how federal officials are prosecuting protestors who've been calling for an end to police brutality. In Aurora, Colorado, six people were arrested and accused of engaging in or inciting a riot after they took part in protests this summer.

Audio:

Say his name.

Elijah McClain.

Say his name.

Elijah McClain.

Al Letson:

Elijah McClain was a 23-year-old Black man from Aurora. He was a skinny guy whose friends described as shy. While walking home from a convenience store last year, someone called 911 saying he, quote, "looked sketchy."

When the police arrived, they wrestled him to the ground and used a chokehold that's now banned. About 15 minutes later, paramedics injected him with a powerful sedative, ketamine. He went into cardiac arrest on the way to the hospital and died a few days later.

Elijah's story drew national attention, and in Colorado, reporters Michael de Yoanna and Rae Solomon of KUNC Public Radio started investigating. They wanted to know just how widespread are sedations like this during police stops. Michael begins with the story of another Elijah, a man by the name of Elijah McKnight.

Michael de Yoan...:

I meet Elijah McKnight in the lobby of his apartment building in Denver. Because of the coronavirus, we bump elbows and then sit at opposite ends of a couch. He's in him mid-twenties, tall, and wearing a baseball hat and T-shirt. He's multi-racial and identifies as Black. We start talking about one night a little over a year ago.

Elijah McKnight:

So I was at work. I just started working at the barbershop.

Michael de Yoan...:

He cuts hair, and after his shift one of his clients invited him to hang out.

Elijah McKnight:

He was like, "Let's go to a bar and chill." We actually hit a couple or a few bars downtown.

Michael de Yoan...:

It was August 20, 2019, and it turned out to be an epic night of drinking. The partying eventually wound down, but on the ride home Elijah's buddy pulled over.

Elijah McKnight:

On the way home he was saying he didn't want to take me all the way, it was kind of out the way. I said, "All right." Like me, I'm never been fully reliant on other people. I take care of myself. So I told him to just stop the car and let me out because it kind of made me mad. Like, "You can't take me up the street? Okay. Stop the car. I'll get out."

Michael de Yoan...:

Looking back on it, he says it wasn't his best decision. He thought maybe he could catch a bus.

Elijah McKnight:

Stumbled to the bus stop because I didn't realize I was that drunk till I got out the car. Then I was like, "Aw, I got to sit down."

Michael de Yoan...:

Actually, he laid down on his backpack.

Elijah McKnight:

I guess I passed out cold, fell asleep, and got woked up by the police that woke me up.

Audio:

I'm just going to ... Just sit right here, okay? Because I don't want you to fall over.

Audio:

Just sit back up here on the bench right ...

Audio:

Yeah, let's ...

Michael de Yoan...:

Two deputies with the Arapahoe County Sheriff's Office help him stand up. They're responding to a citizen's call to 911. This audio comes from their body cameras.

Audio:

Yeah. Have a seat.

Audio:

Y'all don't have to push.

Audio:

Oh, we're not.

Audio:

We just want to make sure you don't fall, man.

Audio:

You're not in trouble right now, man. We just want to see that you're okay.

Audio:

[crosstalk].

Michael de Yoan...:

Officers repeatedly asked him to sit down, but he doesn't do it. Elijah is standing, swaying back and forth. His speech is slurred.

Audio:

How much have you had to drink?

Audio:

Yeah.

Michael de Yoan...:

Elijah mumbles. He asks the deputies to help him by calling his dad.

Audio:

Whoo.

Audio:

Let's go with this. Can you sit down and give me an ID, and then we'll figure out where you live?

Audio:

No, no. Because I lose to the warrants. So I ...

Michael de Yoan...:

He tells the deputies that there are warrants out for him.

Audio:

... warrants, you do arrest me. Please don't. Please don't arrest me. Please don't arrest me. Please don't [crosstalk]-

Audio:

Why should I [crosstalk] ...

Michael de Yoan...:

This is where things get out of control. And a warning that the next minute or so of the story can be disturbing to listen to.

Audio:

Is your name Elisa?

Audio:

Elijah. Elijah. Elijah McClain.

Audio:

E-L-I-J-A-H?

Audio:

I-J-A-H.

Audio:

Okay. Here's what I'm going to do. I'm go to just-

Audio:

No, no.

Audio:

Just relax. [inaudible] ...

Michael de Yoan...:

About eight minutes in, a deputy reaches for Elijah's arm. As he does, Elijah turns and tries to run.

Audio:

[inaudible] my arm.

Michael de Yoan...:

Within seconds and just a few feet from where he started, Elijah is on the ground on his back, looking up at the deputies.

Audio:

You're going to get tased. Do you understand me?

Audio:

No.

Audio:

Turn around and get on your stomach now. You're going to get tased.

Audio:

Oh. Oh! Oh!

Audio:

Turn around. Get on your stomach now!

Audio:

Ow! Ow!

Audio:

Put your hands behind your back now!

Audio:

Ow! Sergeant, stop please.

Audio:

[inaudible] one. Taser in play.

Audio:

Please stop.

Audio:

Put your hands behind your back now!

Audio:

[inaudible].

Audio:

You won't get tased again. Do you understand?

Audio:

Yes.

Audio:

Stop, please.

Audio:

Do not move again.

Audio:

All right. I will not move again. I will not move again. I will not move again.

Michael de Yoan...:

Deputies handcuff him, but they don't arrest him. They don't put him in the back of their cruiser. They don't take him to jail.

Audio:

[inaudible] here to talk to you. Are you going to cooperate with him?

Audio:

No. [crosstalk] ...

Michael de Yoan...:

Paramedics from South Metro Fire Rescue arrive, and a few minutes after that, you can't see who's talking, but it's clear that sheriff's deputies ask the paramedics whether they can give Elijah drugs.

Audio:

You guys can't give him anything, can you, once he goes to the hospital? Unless he goes to the hospital.

Audio:

Well, we can give him ketamine until he's sleeping like a baby but not  [crosstalk].

Audio:

Please. Don't give me ... Don't inject anything in my vein whatever. I love you.

Audio:

I've got to check it out. Bye. [crosstalk].

Michael de Yoan...:

Over Elijah's protests not to have anything put into his veins, a paramedic sedates him. This is what my reporting partner, Rae Solomon, and I want to focus on.

Rae Solomon:

Exactly. We want to know how paramedics can give Elijah drugs even after he just told them not to.

Michael de Yoan...:

We found out that paramedics said Elijah was suffering from something called "excited delirium."

Rae Solomon:

That's a medical condition where a person shows symptoms like extreme agitation, overheating, exceptional strength and combativeness. They're irrational, frenzied, incoherent and impervious to pain. Patients can't stop resisting, and are said to be completely out of control.

Michael de Yoan...:

There's also this: Doctors have told us that people can exercise themselves to death.

Rae Solomon:

So if paramedics diagnose someone with excited delirium, they're allowed to sedate them, and the drug of choice? Ketamine. But was excited delirium what was going on with Elijah?

Michael de Yoan...:

We reached out to South Metro Fire Rescue and the Arapahoe County Sheriff's Office. Neither would talk to us.

Rae Solomon:

So we turned to Joseph Baker, a critical care paramedic in Minnesota. In August, he filed a lawsuit against his former employer, the City of Woodbury, claiming he faced retaliation for refusing a police officer's order to sedate someone.

Michael de Yoan...:

We asked Joseph to review the body camera footage with us.

Joseph Baker:

So I heard the police officers asking if they could give him something, and asked him if he can go to the hospital. My question is: What is their end goal?

Michael de Yoan...:

Joseph says it doesn't seem the paramedics are independently assessing Elijah. He says sheriff's deputies are inserting their opinions, telling paramedics Elijah was showing unusual strength and that he wouldn't stop resisting.

Rae Solomon:

Also in the video, Elijah answers paramedics questions and he seems to be trying to get them to listen to them.

Joseph Baker:

The fact that he's trying to make eye contact, someone who's delirious, that's the key term in excited delirium. In these situations where these people are articulating who they are, where they are, what the situation is, how can you determine that this person is delirious?

Rae Solomon:

And even though Elijah yells and curses at deputies and struggles as they restrain him on the ground ...

Joseph Baker:

I'm not seeing excited delirium.

Rae Solomon:

He says it looks like Elijah is just drunk and difficult. Joseph brings some of his own experiences to the table.

Joseph Baker:

There was more than one occasion where dispatch updated us prior to our arrival, where they said that police were asking to either get ketamine ready or police were saying that the patient was going to need ketamine.

Rae Solomon:

Joseph says police would sometimes pressure him to inject ketamine even when he thought it wasn't medically necessary. He says some officers have a mindset that sedations are an easy way to control people who are being difficult or disagreeable.

Joseph Baker:

There were situations where police arrived on scene before us and they were saying that the patient needed ketamine or they needed sedation, and we could develop a rapport and a running dialogue where it wasn't necessary. The situation could be de-escalated.

Michael de Yoan...:

Sedating a person isn't something to take lightly. People have different reactions to the drug. In Elijah McKnight's case, that reaction was bad.

Elijah McKnight:

Yeah, see, I was out cold. Several doctors told me they saved my life, and that I was pretty much dead.

Michael de Yoan...:

Paramedics gave Elijah two doses of ketamine. To calculate those doses, they needed to guess Elijah's weight. According to their own records, paramedics got it wrong, overestimating his weight by over 100 pounds. At the hospital, Elijah was intubated and put on a ventilator to breathe for him.

Elijah McKnight:

In my memory, it went from being pinned down like that to them pulling a tube out my throat.

Rae Solomon:

Elijah's experience isn't unique. We looked at excited delirium cases throughout Colorado, and we found that almost 17% of the time patients developed complications before they even got to the hospital. And once people got to the hospital, they were intubated 20% of the time.

Michael de Yoan...:

High complication rates make some doctors worry about this.

Mary Dale Peter...:

The information that we've gotten is that it's probably not a safe practice.

Michael de Yoan...:

Mary Dale Peterson is president of the American Society of Anesthesiologists.

Mary Dale Peter...:

Ketamine is actually a general anesthetic. That's a powerful drug. Depending on the dosage, it has different properties on the brain. As that dosage escalates, we will see more problems.

Rae Solomon:

Problems like we're seeing in Colorado. Problems like hypoxia, where someone's suffers from low oxygen levels. Problems like significant increases in blood pressure and most serious ...

Mary Dale Peter...:

It can cause people to stop breathing.

Rae Solomon:

With excited delirium, Dr. Peterson worries that paramedics may be sedating people for the wrong reasons.

Mary Dale Peter...:

Ketamine or any other drug should never be given for law enforcement purposes. We only give the drugs or medications for medical reasons.

Michael de Yoan...:

We reached out to another doctor who raised even more questions. Paul Appelbaum of the American Psychiatric Association helps write the DSM, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, basically the accepted dictionary of psychiatric diagnoses. As for excited delirium, it isn't in there.

Paul Appelbaum:

To date we have not been aware that there exists sufficient data to validate it as a diagnostic entity.

Michael de Yoan...:

In other words, psychiatrists like Appelbaum doubt that excited delirium is even a real condition. He says the symptoms and causes are all kind of vague.

Paul Appelbaum:

Part of my concern about a term like excited delirium is my sense that it's being used as a wastebasket term, which is to say everybody who creates problems and struggles with the police and ends up hurt or dead is thrown into this wastebasket.

Michael de Yoan...:

As a medical condition, excited delirium has only been around for a little over a decade, and one man played an outsized role in defining it.

Mark DeBard:

I'm Mark DeBard. I'm a medical doctor, now officially retired as an emergency physician, although I maintain my status as a professor emeritus of Emergency Medicine at the Ohio State University here in Columbus, Ohio.

Rae Solomon:

Dr. DeBard says that back in the '90s, he was working in the emergency room, and he saw people who were agitated, acting bizarre and physiologically stuck in fight-or-flight mode. Many were on stimulants like cocaine or methamphetamine, and some people died, essentially exerting themselves to death.

Mark DeBard:

By the early 2000s, it became obvious that we were seeing more and more cases of this, and I start reading about them all over the country in custody of law enforcement and EMS, dying before they get to the hospital.

Rae Solomon:

So Dr. DeBard spoke with peers around the country and formed a task force to investigate. In 2009, they issued a white paper the American College of Emergency Physicians formally defining excited delirium syndrome and its treatment.

Mark DeBard:

You can't talk these people down. You have to intervene medically, usually with sedative medications. It calms the entire body down, and it interrupts this feedback loop allowing their body to return to normal.

Rae Solomon:

They landed on ketamine because it worked quickly and had a pretty solid safety record. Dr. DeBard stands by his findings, despite what other doctors say.

Mark DeBard:

I wouldn't expect psychiatrists or anesthesiologists to ever see a case. There's no possibility they would ever encounter a case. These cases occur out in the field and they occur in the emergency room. But in the end, the only physicians that see these cases are emergency physicians.

Michael de Yoan...:

We wanted to know how often medics around the country sedate people for supposed excited delirium, so we started in our own state, Colorado, where more than 100 paramedic agencies are allowed to use ketamine like this. We learned that in the last two and a half years, paramedics injected the drug 902 times.

Rae Solomon:

We thought those numbers sounded high. Excited delirium is supposed to be rare, so we asked Dr. DeBard how many cases he would expect to see.

Mark DeBard:

I came up with the number 57 as the number of expected cases, statistically speaking, for Colorado in those two and a half years.

Rae Solomon:

We told Dr. DeBard about the 902 cases Colorado actually had over that time period.

Mark DeBard:

That sounds like they had about 15 times more uses of ketamine for excited delirium syndrome than I would've expected.

Michael de Yoan...:

In Colorado, we know how often paramedics use ketamine to sedate people for excited delirium because the state keeps track of that. But many states don't, and we couldn't find any national data.

Rae Solomon:

By phone, we asked Dr. DeBard about this.

Michael de Yoan...:

Do you know how many EMS providers across the country are using ketamine for excited delirium?

Mark DeBard:

Not right now I don't.

Michael de Yoan...:

It does seem pretty widespread. That's just the impression-

Mark DeBard:

I would agree that it seems widespread, but I have no data on that.

Michael de Yoan...:

Yeah. Do you know if there is a universal definition for excited delirium being used by these EMS providers, and then beyond that, is there universal training? Are they all getting the same education?

Mark DeBard:

I don't know the answer to either one of those.

Rae Solomon:

So we started counting ourselves. So far we found that at least 34 states across the country allow paramedics to sedate people for excited delirium.

Michael de Yoan...:

We know of at least one case where ketamine sedation for excited delirium contributed to a man's death.

Rae Solomon:

But until we have national data on how often people are sedated for excited delirium, there's no way to say just how many are being harmed or how often excited delirium is misdiagnosed.

Michael de Yoan...:

That's another thing we wanted to know from Dr. DeBard. In the case of Elijah McKnight, does DeBard believe that Elijah was suffering from excited delirium?

Rae Solomon:

Dr. DeBard agreed to watch the bodycam footage.

Audio:

[inaudible].

Rae Solomon:

Can you hear it okay?

Mark DeBard:

Yes, I can.

Rae Solomon:

Dr. DeBard watches as deputies have Elijah handcuffed and pinned to the ground, and a paramedic crouches down to talk to him.

Audio:

I'm with the Fire Department.

Audio:

Please help me.

Audio:

What's your name?

Audio:

Elijah Deshawn ...

Audio:

One more time?

Audio:

Elijah.

Audio:

Elijah?

Audio:

Deshawn is my middle name and McKnight's my last name.

Audio:

Okay. [crosstalk].

Mark DeBard:

He's obviously understanding and answering their questions somewhat rationally.

Audio:

You guys can't give him anything, can you, once he goes to the hospital? Unless he goes to the hospital.

Audio:

Well, we can give him ketamine until he's sleeping like a baby but not take ...

Rae Solomon:

Dr. DeBard says no, he doesn't see anything even close to excited delirium in Elijah's bodycam tape.

Mark DeBard:

So yeah. The big deal on this is they sound like they want to give him ketamine to control his behavior as opposed to treat excited delirium syndrome.

Michael de Yoan...:

So what about Elijah McKnight? What was going on for him that night? What was he feeling?

Elijah McKnight:

Yeah, I freaked out, for sure. I already got tased, and I just felt like that was going to be the end of it. Like, my life was in their hands. I'm thinking that they kill people all the time and get away with it; I'm about to be one of those victims. So I'm struggling.

Michael de Yoan...:

Elijah is facing two felony assault charges, one for each deputy, along with two misdemeanors for obstruction.

Rae Solomon:

Prosecution documents point to excited delirium. They say medics attempted to ask Elijah questions but he refused to give answers. They also say he was so strong that he kept lifting a deputy off the ground with his leg while restrained.

Elijah McKnight:

The paramedics on the scene of the ketamine administration, they're, I feel like, giving false information. That they're saying I'm being wildly combative and expands in excited delirium. They made something up because they're like, "Oh, yeah, he's lifting everybody up off the ground. He's the Incredible Hulk."

Michael de Yoan...:

Elijah says he was drunk that night.

Rae Solomon:

And he was scared and agitated after being tased.

Michael de Yoan...:

But he doesn't believe he had excited delirium.

Rae Solomon:

And if he did, wouldn't that mean he was delirious and facing a medical emergency?

Michael de Yoan...:

If that's the case, it leaves him wondering why prosecutors even charged him at all.

Al Letson:

Michael de Yoanna and Rae Solomon are both reporters at KUNC Public Radio in Colorado. In August, after the release of their initial stories, the director of Colorado's Health Department announced it was launching an immediate and thorough review. The agency said it will now study ketamine sedations, patient safety and oversight of its program. The state has promised a public report that could come before the end of the year.

After a year of calls to defund the police, one city actually does it.

Chas Moore:

We can actually tell the police no and everything's going to be fine.

Al Letson:

That's coming up on Reveal.

Audio:

Support comes from MSNBC. The election of our lifetimes is here with Americans on edge and a nation in the balance. Will there be a blue wave? Will Donald Trump defy polling?

On election night, join MSNBC as Rachel Maddow, Nicolle Wallace, Joy Reid, Brian Williams and their team of experts analyze it all from every angle. Steve Kornacki will be at the big board breaking down the data state by state and county by county. Coverage begins Tuesday at 6:00 PM Eastern. Stay with MSNBC until the last vote is counted.

Al Letson:

From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson.

There's not a lot that Donald Trump and Joe Biden agree on. But there's one thing:

Audio:

As long as I'm president, we will never defund the police. We will strongly defend our police.

Audio:

And I'm totally opposed to defunding the police officers.

Al Letson:

But the funding of your local law enforcement isn't up to the president. It's up to your mayor, your county supervisor, your city councilor. And all summer, those are the people that activists have been talking to.

Audio:

This is a meeting of the Budget and Finance Committee of the Cincinnati City Council.

Al Letson:

In Cincinnati, Ohio, budget meetings move to a convention center. Hundreds of people turned up to speak their minds.

Audio:

I would like to ask every single person in this room that any of these people who do not vote to defund the police, you vote them out.

Whoo!

Defund the police.

Defund the police.

Defund the police.

Fola Akinnibi:

The meeting would be three, four, five hours in cities that are red cities, blue cities. Yeah, we're seeing it across the country.

Al Letson:

Fola Akinnibi is a reporter for Bloomberg News. He's a part of a team covering municipal finance, AKA How Local Government Pays for Things.

Fola Akinnibi:

From our perspective, there are these calls, but are they possible? Is this that anyone is doing? Is this is something that we're going to see happen?

Al Letson:

At the end of the summer, Fola's colleague Sarah Holder asked him to run the numbers to see what the 50 largest cities in the US did after these public meetings.

Fola Akinnibi:

A lot of the legwork was really just pulling up city budget documents, scrolling through them, finding the police allocation, finding the general fund budget allocation. Entering into our spreadsheet and then calling the budget office or the finance director, whoever we can call, to then confirm the numbers.

Al Letson:

They got final budget numbers from 34 cities. Those 34 together made for a clear national picture.

Fola Akinnibi:

There's not been any major move to defund police.

Al Letson:

With tax revenue taking a hit because of the coronavirus, most big cities cut discretionary spending for the next year. But most of them actually increased the share of that money going to police, and the handful that did make cuts were mostly around the edges. Cities like Boston, Baltimore and Portland made cuts of less than 5%.

Fola Akinnibi:

Then there's Austin. They're off the chart almost. They far and away had the biggest cut of any of the cities that we looked at.

Audio:

We're now ready to take a vote on Item 1 to approve an ordinance adopting the City's budget as amended.

Audio:

Mayor Adler?

Audio:

Yes.

Audio:

Mayor Pro Tem Garza?

Audio:

Yes.

Audio:

Councilmember Alter?

Audio:

Yes.

Yes.

Yes.

Yes.

Al Letson:

In August, the City Council in Austin, Texas voted unanimously to defund its police department, slashing its budget by nearly a third. Cuts to policing meant more money for other priorities like public health and preventing homelessness. It's a massive redistribution of city funds.

Fola Akinnibi:

This is not something that's going to happen in one budget session. It's not going to happen because people have shown up to the City Council meetings for two or three weeks. This is something that was years in the making.

Al Letson:

So how did Austin become the only major city in the US to defund its police department this year? Well, that move was years in the making. In some ways, it's a story that begins nearly 100 years ago with something called the 1928 Master Plan.

Chas Moore:

City Council at the time literally came up with this policy to put people on the east side, like it was Black and Latinos on the East and then the west was white.

Al Letson:

That's Chas Moore. He's 32 years old and the founder and executive director of the Austin Justice Coalition.

Chas Moore:

For a very long time, East Austin was popping. It was Black movie theaters, Black businesses, Black restaurants, Black everything.

Al Letson:

But lately Austin has been one of the most rapidly gentrifying cities in the country. People of color had been pushed into a few neighborhoods, but now they're being pushed out of the city altogether.

Chas Moore:

So Austin likes to paint itself as this liberal haven of the South, but it's very easy to be liberal when there's no Black and Brown people to be liberal for.

Al Letson:

From 2013 to 2019, Austin had the highest number of people per capita killed by police of any city in Texas, and Austin streets repeatedly filled with protests.

Audio:

For Larry Jackson.

Justice.

For Larry Jackson.

Justice.

For Larry Jackson.

Justice. [crosstalk] ...

Al Letson:

Larry Jackson was killed by police in 2013, 17-year-old David Joseph in 2016.

Audio:

Not for David Joseph. Not for David Joseph.

Al Letson:

And earlier this year ...

Audio:

... Mike Ramos.

[inaudible].

Mike Ramos.

[inaudible].

Mike Ramos ...

Al Letson:

Police shot Mike Ramos.

Chas Moore:

Nothing was really changing because we were in the streets but we wasn't in the seats like at City Council. We wasn't in the seats at the police contract negotiations.

Al Letson:

Chas started the Austin Justice Coalition to push for policy change.

Chas Moore:

I just saw this need to pivot to the actual places where change could occur.

Al Letson:

One of the first things that Chas and other young leaders in the group wanted was better oversight of officers caught abusing people. That meant changing the City's contract with the police union.

Chas Moore:

We found out very quickly that the police contract had all the do's and don'ts of police oversight in their contract. We was like, "That makes no sense. The police can't tell the police oversight person how to oversee them." We found out that it was very hard to hold officers accountable, so we engaged in that fight.

A lot of people didn't think we were going to win. Hell, I didn't even think we was going to win. I think still to this day it was one of the first and few moments where activist groups and advocates have fought against the police union and actually won.

Al Letson:

Chas says that win helped convince elected officials in Austin that police reform was possible.

Chas Moore:

The police union was saying, "If you don't help us with this contract, we'll make sure you don't get elected." And elected officials took a chance and they all kept their jobs. I think they were able to see, "Oh, we can actually tell the police no and everything's going to be fine." It was a alley-oop for the defund fight that we just had a couple weeks ago.

Al Letson:

By "alley-oop," Chas means that if activists hadn't pushed to renegotiate Austin's police contract in 2018, there wouldn't have been the momentum or the political capital to defund the City's police department this year.

Audio:

Black Lives Matter.

Black Lives Matter.

Black Lives Matter.

Black Lives Matter. [crosstalk] ...

Chas Moore:

So in Austin we had this huge rally on June 7th. It was anywhere from like five to 15,000 people out there. It was a beautiful display of unity. The mayor came out. We had City Council people come out.

And for them to see people on a mass level coming to this consciousness to where you know what? Maybe police are not the answer to all the things in the world. Maybe police shouldn't be the answer to mental health calls. Maybe police shouldn't be the answer to all domestic violence situations. I think that really allowed us to come out and be bold with the wishes and wants of a hundred million dollars or more from defunding the police.

Al Letson:

Now, these kind of protests have taken place in thousands of communities across the country this year. So I asked Chas why he thinks Austin is the only major city to defund its police department.

Chas Moore:

Al, you know what? I have no idea. To be honest with you, I think Austin is just this really weird place, and I'd never oversell what we do because I know, for example, people have been fighting police contracts in Portland but they haven't had the same success. I can sit here and give you a bullshit answer if that's what you want me to do.

Al Letson:

No. No. Not at all.

Chas Moore:

I don't think you want that. Yeah. I mean, I've been on record calling Austin the Atlanta for white people because it really is. If you a white and hey, it's popping here in Austin for you.

But I think people in Austin also realize this is a very unsafe place in terms of police if you are Black, Brown or poor, and they want to see that change. I think it's easy for us to get people in alignment and fight collectively and struggle together. Man, I cannot tell you how blessed I have been to have the staff and the volunteers.

These people come in, and they drink this juice that I'm handing out. And that juice is filled with hope and crazy ideas that we can actually live in a anti-racist city. We can live in a world where Black people are no longer going to be killed for just being Black. We can live in a world where women are going to be paid the same amount of money for doing the same job. We can live in a world where men stop controlling women's body. I'm saying the only reason we get this done is because of the people that have invested and bought into the idea that we can be better than we are, I think.

Al Letson:

Chas Moore, thank you so much for coming to talk to me, man.

Chas Moore:

Al, thank you so much for having me. It's been a pleasure.

Al Letson:

Chas Moore is the founder and executive director of the Austin Justice Coalition. Now, it's worth noting that not all of the 150 million dollars in cuts have been finalized. The City is still working out its plans to re-imagine how traffic enforcement or mental health emergencies could be handled outside the police department.

This kind of re-imagining is at the heart of what protestors across the country have been calling for and cities, politicians and police unions have been resistant to. Many can't see any other way for policing to operate and that points to the first barrier: limited imagination. If we can't envision a system that serves everyone, we can't put in the work to make it so. The alternative is we continue to do what we have always done and always, always get the same results.

Thanks to Patrick Michals who produced that story along with Stan Alcorn. Stan was also the lead producer for today's show. Brett Myers edited the show. Thanks to Reveal's executive editor, Esther Kaplan, for editorial help on the story about federal prosecutions of protestors, Brian Larson and Jackie Hai at KUNC Public Radio in Greeley, Colorado for partnering with us on the story about sedations. And thanks to Brandon Garrett at the Wilson Center for Science and Justice.

Victoria Baranetsky is our general counsel. Taki Telonidas is our supervising senior editor. Our production manager is Amy Mostafa. Score and sound design by the dynamic duo, Jay Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs, and Fernando, my man, yo, Arruda. They had help this week from Brett Simpson. Our CEO is Christa Scharfenberg. Matt Thompson is our editor in chief. Our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan. Our theme music is by [Kommorado], Lightning.

Support for Reveal is provided by The Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. And Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the Democracy Fund and The Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I'm Al Letson, and remember, there is always more to the story.

Audio:

From PRX.