When a suspect dies while in police custody, “excited delirium” is often cited as the cause of death. Medical examiners concluded that excited delirium killed a 41-year-old man who was arrested by the New York City Police Department in 2020, a 43-year-old man who was taken into custody in Missouri in 2019 and a 22-year-old man who was repeatedly tased by Wisconsin police officers in 2017. Police training manuals describe excited delirium as a condition characterized by extreme agitation, hallucinations and unusual displays of strength, but it is not recognized by the American Psychiatric Association or the American Medical Association.
Excited delirium is usually listed as the cause of death in situations where suspects resisted arrest or became involved in altercations with police officers. This has led civil rights groups to claim that the condition is used to cover up police brutality. Excited delirium was first diagnosed in 1980. At the time, doctors believed that the condition was caused by stimulant drugs like cocaine.
Doctors no longer diagnose excited delirium, but medical examiners who conduct autopsies and investigate suspicious deaths sometimes still list the condition as a cause of death. However, that may soon be changing. On March 23, the National Association of Medical Examiners posted a statement on its website that said excited delirium should no longer be recognized as a legitimate cause of death. Instead, the association urges medical examiners to focus on underlying causes like drug use, preexisting medical conditions and police mistreatment. The president of the Institute for the Prevention of In-Custody Deaths, which trains police officers and provides them with support when they are sued, said the association’s statement will lead to more lawsuits and not prevent any deaths.
Police misconduct is often covered up by blaming the victim. Excited delirium is a once respected but now discredited medical diagnosis that has been used to explain deaths that occur in police custody, which is a practice that has been widely criticized by civil rights groups. The National Association of Medical Examiners is now distancing itself from excited delirium, which should lead to more transparency in police brutality investigations.
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