Police agencies and their ideological supporters, often located in criminology and psychology departments in universities and colleges, have developed entire cottage industries producing pseudo-science and pseudo-forensics, phony analyses, concepts, and terms, to justify and excuse police killings of civilians. These pseudo-scientific projects have constructed their own literatures, bodies of ideas, and “expert” witnesses supporting dubious “diagnoses” used to “explain” how it is that victims of police violence came to be responsible (biologically or psychologically) for their own murders.
Among the most pernicious and extensively developed and deployed of these pseudo-scientific diagnoses are the notorious notions of excited delirium and so-called suicide by cop. Neither of these has any scientific basis or legitimate supporting evidence to back them. They offer little, in fact, beyond the statements of police “researchers” (cops and former cops who have used such work not only to support their colleagues and former colleagues but to claim positions in academia) and some compliant criminologists and psychologists and others supportive of police on ideological or opportunistic grounds (i.e. funding).
While the dubious claim of excited delirium has no psychological or medical basis it is routinely used to let police officers walk away from any accountability when they kill civilians. Despite the recognition that excited delirium has no basis in scientific, psychological or medical, reality, it is still used in investigative cases on police killings, often by coroners’ offices in the Canadian context, for example.
In Canada the excited delirium excuse was used to let killer cops off the hook in two cases within a three week period over October and November of 2016. These cases involved the police killing of Maurizio Facchin (50) in Burnaby, British Columbia, in 2014 and Simon Chung (34) in Edmonton, Alberta, in 2013. Both cases involved the use of tasers by police and the men went into fatal distress only after a taser was used on them. Chung was also subjected to attempts by two Edmonton police to restrain him forcefully. He was tased twice by an officer while restrained, including one blast that lasted 28 seconds (Parsons 2016). In both cases the role of the taser in the men’s deaths was acknowledged yet both deaths were ruled accidental.
Notably in the case of the police killing of Simon Chung one of the officers claimed to suspect that the victim was experiencing excited delirium yet chose to restrain and taser him anyway. This would suggest culpability in his death given the claims of police that excited delirium could lead to a fatal response to either restraint or tasing.
The Dubious Diagnosis of Excited Delirium
Excited delirium has come under growing public scrutiny in recent years given the overwhelming proportion of diagnoses related to deaths involving police use of compliance holds and/or use of tasers. Typically these diagnoses are provided only by medical examiners not by hospital or emergency room doctors. Furthermore, and as alarming, there is the fact that excited delirium is presently not a recognized medical or psychiatric diagnosis by either the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IVTR) of the American Psychiatric Association or the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-9) of the World Health Organization. Due to these troubling facts, it is widely considered that the real cause of death in cases identified after the fact as instances of excited delirium are actually caused by straightforward police violence and use if force. These are related to taser use and positional asphyxia.
Civil rights groups have argued that diagnoses of excited delirium are only applied after the fact to get police officers off the hook in cases in which excessive force has resulted in the death of a civilian. The NAACP reported in 2003 that excited delirium diagnoses are provided more often in explaining the deaths of minorities than they are in the deaths of white victims. In 2007, Eric Balaban of the American Civil Liberties Union noted that excited delirium was not recognized by the American Medical Association or the American Psychological Association and that the diagnosis simply served “as a means of white-washing what may be excessive use of force and inappropriate use of control techniques by officers during an arrest” (NPR 2007). Melissa Smith of the American Medical Association confirmed in 2007 that the association had “no official policy” on the supposed condition (ABC News 2007).
Excited delirium is not recognized in Australia by the Australasian College for Emergency Medicine, the Australian Medical Association or any other registered medical body. Neither is it recognized in law. A 2015 case, in which a man who had been declared to have died from excited delirium was overturned by a ruling in the Victorian Coroners Court. The presiding coroner in that case concluded that neither excited delirium nor so called excited delirium syndrome are appropriate or helpful in providing a legitimate medical cause of death (Coroner’s Court of Victoria at Melbourne 2015).
The Burnaby ruling in the Mauricio Facchin case is particularly stunning, and disappointing, given that Vancouver was site of the 2007 police killing of migrant Robert Dziekanski whose death police initially lied about publicly suggesting he suffered excited delirium. Video by a civilian witness showed this claim to be untrue as Dziekanski was following police instructions when he was tased and jumped by police causing his death. During the inquiry into police actions that police psychologist Mike Webster that police have been “brainwashed” by Taser International to justify “ridiculously inappropriate” use of the weapon. Webster referred to excited delirium as a “dubious disorder” pushed by Taser International during its police training (Hall 2008). A 2008 report on taser use by the RCMP, An Independent Review of the Adoption and Use of Conducted Energy Weapons by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, concluded that excited delirium should not be included in the operational manual for the Mounties in the absence of formal approval following consultation with a mental-health-policy advisory body (Kiedrowski 2008). Justice Thomas Braidwood concluded the inquiry finding that excited delirium should not be used as part of police use of force training as it is not a legitimate medical condition.
Recommendations Based On What?
In the case of the coroner’s inquiry into the police killing of Maurizio Facchin, the coroner’s jury suggested that police receive training in identifying and properly responding to instances of excited delirium. It was also recommended that 911 dispatchers receive such training so that they might identify and inform police of potential excited delirium cases upon dispatch. Finally the jury suggested that officers contact emergency services when a taser is going to be deployed in such cases.
In the case of the police killing of Simon Chung, Provincial Court Judge Lloyd Malin provided two recommendations. In the first he suggested that while Edmonton Police Service mentions excited delirium syndrome in its policy and procedure manual on use of force, officers should also be trained to recognize the symptoms in all situations, not only during arrests. Malin also recommended that officers be trained to call for emergency medical services as soon as excited delirium is suspected. This call should be made regardless of the need for police to restrain an individual (Parsons 2016).
These recommendations are based on the dubious diagnosis of excited delirium and will do little to change police behavior, particularly violent behavior. They will not address police killings of civilians. The recommendations are based on treatment of a social fiction.
- The notion of suicide-by-cop was first used in the early 1980s by a former California police officer working toward a PhD in Psychology. Virtually all of the research on the issue has been prepared by people with connections to police departments.
ABC News. 2007. “Excited Delirium: Police Brutality vs. Sheer Insanity.” ABC News. March 2.
Coroner’s Court of Victoria at Melbourne. 2015. Finding into Death with Inquest—Inquest into the Death of Odisseas Vekiaris.
Hall, Neil. 2008. “Police Are ‘Brainwashed’ by Taser Maker. Psychologist Blames Instructions.” Vancouver Sun. May 14. A1
Kiedrowski, John. 2008. An Independent Review of the Adoption and Use of Conducted Energy Weapons by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Ottawa: RCMP
NPR. 2007. “Death by Excited Delirium: Diagnosis or Cover Up?” NPR. February 26.
Parsons, Paige. 2016. “Fatality Inquiry Finds Man Tasered by Edmonton Police Died of Excited Delirium Linked to Meth Use.” Edmonton Sun. November 17. http://www.edmontonsun.com/2016/11/17/fatality-inquiry-finds-man-tasered-by-edmonton-police-died-of-excited-delirium-linked-to-meth-use