Police came to North Memorial Medical Center looking for an armed man in a car. They found John Powell, a 48-year-old Minneapolis man, and arrested him at gunpoint on a rainy summer night.
But Powell was black — not the white or light-skinned Hispanic person the caller had described. And he was holding a set of car keys, not a revolver. The 911 caller, a nurse at North Memorial, confirmed it on the scene: They had the wrong guy.
Instead of releasing Powell, police asked for assistance from nearby paramedics, according to police reports, and the paramedics gave Powell a shot of a powerful sedative called ketamine.
Powell struggled to breathe, and needed to be taken into emergency care and intubated, according to a federal lawsuit Powell filed against North Memorial and two police departments he said were involved in the 2015 encounter.
In an interview, Powell and his wife, Sylvia Majors, said he spent a day in the hospital unconscious. “They said I had a 25 percent chance of waking up,” Powell said.
In the Twin Cities, the role of ketamine has come under scrutiny over the past month, since the Star Tribune published excerpts from a draft Minneapolis police oversight investigation. The authors of the report questioned whether Minneapolis officers inappropriately urged paramedics from North Memorial and Hennepin Healthcare to sedate people with ketamine.
A spokeswoman from North Memorial said the hospital will participate in an independent review, along with Hennepin Healthcare, of cases cited in the draft report. That will not include Powell’s case, which involved Robbinsdale and Brooklyn Center officers.
Powell’s lawyer, Kenneth Udoibok, said his client’s case raises identical questions over how police and paramedics interact, and whether sedatives like ketamine are used as a matter of convenience, rather than medical necessity.
“The thesis of the case still remains the same: the police suggested, encouraged, asked paramedics to inject Powell with ketamine,” Udoibok said.
The lawsuit alleges the officers violated Powell’s constitutional rights by inappropriately detaining him and inviting paramedics to sedate him, and then trying to conceal the incident through “misleading” police reports.
Powell reached a confidential court-facilitated settlement with North Memorial earlier this year, but his claims against Brooklyn Center and Robbinsdale police are pending.
In court documents, all three parties have denied any misconduct or negligence.
Jason Hiveley, an attorney for the Robbinsdale police, said the officers did not immediately release Powell because he continued to act erratically. He denied the allegation that police asked paramedics to sedate Powell.
“The decision to sedate him was an independent medical determination made by [North Memorial] staff based on their overall evaluation of Powell’s medical and emotional condition,” Hiveley said in a statement.
Hiveley has asked a judge to dismiss the case.
A shiny object
According to police reports, late on July 17, 2015, a nurse saw a man slumped over in his car with the driver’s side door open.
She approached and the man revealed a gun between his legs. She thought he might be trying to kill himself, so she asked him to turn over the gun. He started pushing bullets into the chamber, and she ran to the elevator.
Powell, his wife and mother had come to the hospital to visit a cousin that night. It was storming, so Powell left to get the car and pick up his family, he said.
That’s when police crossed paths with Powell.
In their reports, officers described Powell screaming profanities and being “verbally out of control.” They detained him at gunpoint, face down on the wet ground. One officer stated in his report that it was difficult to see through the rain, but he noticed a “shiny silver object lying on the ground” near Powell’s hand that he believed to be a revolver. He stepped on Powell’s arm to prevent him from grabbing the object while the other officers cuffed him. “After [Powell] was secured in handcuffs I realized that silver [shiny] object nearby was a set of keys.”
After putting him in the squad car, “Powell was irate,” according to the report. He kicked the squad car doors and “was drooling [from] his mouth and continued to speak profanities at officers,” according to the reports.
The officers asked paramedics to examine Powell due to his “uncontrollable irrational behavior,” according to the reports.
Paramedics injected him with ketamine and moments later brought him to the hospital, the reports said. Powell was never charged with a crime.
‘I thought he was dead’
Powell said he remembers some key details differently.
He walked up on police shining flashlights into his car, and when he approached, they told him to lie on the ground, in the rain, with his hands out, he said.
The police brought the nurse who’d seen the gunman over to Powell. When she told them he wasn’t the right guy, the officers put Powell in a squad car.
Powell said he started kicking and screaming because he saw his wife outside looking for him and he wanted to get her attention.
According to Powell, the officer told him to “shut up or I’m going out of here on a gurney.”
Powell said he doesn’t remember much after the ketamine shot, but he said he witnessed the officers asking the paramedics to come over to the squad.
It took his wife three hours to find him in a hospital bed, she said. Her husband was unconscious and breathing through a tube down his throat.
“I started screaming,” she said. “I thought he was dead.”