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‘Excited delirium’ is pseudo-science, but police often cite anyway

On Behalf of | Jul 7, 2023 | Police Brutality

When people being subdued by the police cry out that they can’t breathe, why do the police often seem indifferent?

Some officers believe that it isn’t possible to talk if you can’t breathe and dismiss the complaints as lies. Unfortunately, that isn’t true.

In other cases, the officer believes that the person is in genuine distress but decides that distress is not justified. Instead, the officer believes their cries are evidence of “excited delirium,” which essentially means the person is struggling against restraint involuntarily. Since the person continues to resist, the officer feels justified in continuing to restrain the person. But “excited delirium” is pseudoscience.

We have seen far too many instances of people – often Black men – being restrained by law enforcement in ways that led to their deaths.

In 2019, for example, Elijah McClain was killed by police and paramedics in Aurora, Colorado. The 23-year-old Black man had autism spectrum disorder and was acting strangely but not aggressively. Nevertheless, police decided to restrain him.

During the restraint, an officer thought Elijah went for his gun. So, three officers threw him to the ground and applied a neck hold that cut off the blood to Elijah’s brain. After a few minutes in which he begged for help, Elijah threw up several times. The indifferent officers threatened him with a police dog.

The officers called an ambulance and insisted that the medics should give Elijah a dose of ketamine due to the 140-pound young man’s “incredible strength.” The medics gave him a high dose of the drug and Elijah stopped breathing. He was ultimately kept alive for three days but was brain dead.

The cause of death was listed as “ketamine overdose” even though this overdose was involuntary and in the context of police abuse. If his family hadn’t filed a wrongful death lawsuit, there might have been no repercussions to the police or paramedics who killed him. (Now, several officers and two paramedics are charged with murder. They have pled not guilty and their trials are upcoming.)

‘Excited delirium’ isn’t actually a medical diagnosis

Elijah McClain was not the first or last person to die with police using “excited delirium” as an excuse for their behavior. But both the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association condemn this use of a pseudo-scientific diagnosis.

Even if the concept has some validity, police and EMTs are not doctors and are not in a position to diagnose illnesses, even in emergencies.

Police need more and better training. There are people who require restraint, but nobody deserves to be ignored when they’re crying out for air. When police do so because they perceive “excited delirium,” they must be held accountable.