Police keep using ‘excited delirium’ to justify brutality. It’s junk science

 

Placard of 23-year-old Elijah McClain, dead in 2019 after he was stopped while walking to his apartment by three Aurora Police Department officers. 

‘Across the United States, police officers are routinely taught that excited delirium is a condition characterized by the abrupt onset of aggression and distress, typically accompanying drug abuse, often resulting in sudden death. One 2014 article from the FBI’s Law Enforcement Bulletin describes “excited delirium syndrome” as “a serious and potentially deadly medical condition involving psychotic behavior, elevated temperature, and an extreme fight-or-flight response by the nervous system.”

How often is excited delirium invoked? It’s unclear, but in Florida at least 53 deaths in police custody were attributed to it over the past 10 years. One study showed that 11 percent of sudden unexplained deaths in police custody in Maryland from 1990 to 2004 were attributed to excited delirium. The American College of Emergency Physicians published a controversial position paper in 2009 stating its consensus that excited delirium is a valid disease, associated with a significant risk of sudden death.

But excited delirium is pseudoscience. It’s not a concept recognized by the American Medical Association or the American Psychiatric Association. It isn’t a valid diagnosis; it’s a misappropriation of medical terminology, and it doesn’t justify police violence…

Excited delirium implies that there is a medical condition that predisposes certain individuals, often black men, to die in police custody. It draws upon aspects of real medical conditions such as delirium, psychosis, drug intoxication and sudden cardiac death. But it manipulates them to form a broadly applicable blanket diagnosis that serves the interests of law enforcement and absolves officers of accountability….’

— @MeabhOHare, @JoshuaBudhu, @AltafSaadiMD via The Washington Post

As an emergency and consultation psychiatrist who is routinely asked to see cases of delirium, I concur and am adding my name to those authoritatively attempting to refute this racist trope. 

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