Law Enforcement Training: People Saying 'I Can't Breathe' Are Just Suffering From 'Excited Delirium'
from the dying-in-custody-is-just-a-tragic-side-effect-of-being-previously-alive dept
– Officer Thomas Lane to Officer Derek Chauvin as Officer Chauvin killed George Floyd by kneeling on his neck for nearly nine minutes.
Police officers are not “worried” about “excited delirium.” This supposed mental health condition — which isn’t recognized by the American Psychiatric Association, American Medical Association, or the World Health association — exists mainly to exonerate police officers who have subdued an arrestee to death. A majority of people who die from “excited delirium” do so in police custody.
Dr. Michael Freeman, a professor of forensic medicine at Maastricht University in the Netherlands has been researching this law enforcement-centered cause of death.
Freeman’s research team currently has a paper in the process of being published that reviews scientific studies comparing excited delirium with cases of agitated delirium syndrome — a medical diagnosis that gets applied more by doctors treating a person who lived, while excited delirium is primarily used by forensic pathologists examining a person who died.
While both syndromes present with roughly the same symptoms, Freeman’s team found that restraint was used in 90 percent of the cases that turned out to be fatal. Only 2 percent of fatal cases involved no restraints. (The rest were unknown.) Forceful restraints such as manhandling or hog-tying were also significantly more likely in fatal cases.
It’s not the “excited delirium” that kills people. It’s the force deployed by officers. And when those officers need to be cleared for their excessive force use, “excited delirium” is there to take the blame.
The officer mentioning it during the George Floyd killing shows how much “excited delirium” has become an exonerative mantra for law enforcement — just like the chanting of “stop resisting” to excuse the continued assault of an unresisting arrestee.
Training materials obtained by Mitch Kotler from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department show how officers are being given a ready excuse to use for in-custody deaths. The PowerPoint presentation [PDF] stretches the definition of “excited delirium” to cover nearly any abnormal behavior officers might encounter, as well as excuse nearly any use of force deployed in response.
There are six slides listing “symptoms” of excited delirium, which includes everything from dilated pupils to “easily distracted” to “extreme agitation” to muscle rigidity. On the fifth slide, there’s this supposed symptom:
Says “I can’t breathe”, “I’m dying”, “You’re killing me.”
Well, that’s super-handy, considering how many people who’ve told officers they can’t breathe soon stop breathing. And of this expansive list of so-called “behaviors,” George Floyd only exhibited this one: telling officers he couldn’t breathe. This sign of distress was ignored by Officer Derek Chauvin until Floyd stopped breathing.
As if six pages of catch-all mental illness symptoms wasn’t enough to create an aura of excited delirium around anyone not acting “normal,” the presentation then throws in a handful of drugs and the suggestion that literally any genetic variation can make any non-cop a potential sufferer of excited delirium.
Once the presentation has finished delivering a list of ways to turn arrestees into excited delirium sufferers, it then tells officers how they can use this broadly-defined health condition to excuse excessive force deployment.
Excited Delirium deaths have historically been blamed on:
OC [oleoresin capsicum, a.k.a. pepper spray]
Pressure on thorax (back)
There’s a reason Taser is listed first. Taser (now Axon) has pushed for coroners and law enforcement agencies to use this term for in-custody deaths rather than something more descriptive and accurate like, say, “electrocuted.” Taser has sued coroners who have declared Taser use to be a contributor to someone’s death. And when it wasn’t suing coroners and medical examiners, it was trying to intimidate them into retracting or altering reports.
Several coroners have also reported being challenged by Taser, says Jentzen. Among them was a Cook County, Ill., medical examiner who ruled Taser shocks contributed to the death of a 54-year-old man in 2005. Taser dismissed the autopsy report as not credible and said the medical examiner was unqualified. The company demanded a judicial review.
Taser also has asked coroners to reverse opinions. An Anderson, S.C., deputy coroner said Taser representatives showed up in his office on the same day that he ruled Taser shocks contributed to a man’s death in 2004.
Taser had its own theory about in-custody deaths linked to Taser use:
Taser advocates an alternative cause-of-death scenario called excited delirium. The condition, which is not recognized as a diagnosis in official medical manuals, is used to describe deaths of suspects who become so agitated by drugs, psychosis or poor health that their bodies shut down during struggles with police.
Years later, Taser’s concerted effort to avoid wrongful death suits has paid off. Law enforcement agencies have bought into the “excited delirium” narrative and turned it into a key part of police culture. It’s a built-in excuse that’s backed by very little science — a mental health condition that seems to be triggered most often by the presence of police officers.
This presentation treats excited delirium as two things it can’t possibly be simultaneously: a serious mental health condition to be handled cautiously by officers and a go-to scapegoat for any deaths officers cause while deploying force against people they’ve decided are too deliriously excited to be handled with actual care or concern. Cops see it for what it is. And that’s why cops in the process of killing someone they’re just trying to arrest say things about being “worried” about “excited delirium.” They’ve already been given the script and the motivation for their characters. All they have to do is deliver their lines.