The pseudoscientific designation of “excited delirium” as a cause of death on death certificates has been outlawed in California. Coroners across the country have nevertheless used the term to retroactively diagnose people who died as a result of abuse by police while in their custody, whether during or after an arrest, despite it not being recognised as valid by the DSM, The American Psychiatric Association, The WHO, The National Association of Medical Examiners, and a host of other professional organisations. Notably, “excited delirium” has been a contributing or determining factor in the cause of death in hundreds of killings caused by Tasers.
As one would anticipate for a false diagnosis, the precise symptoms of “excited delirium” are a bit hazy, although they often include intense hostility, heat, and — get this – significantly increased strength. It becomes clear how anger plus strength creates a retroactive rationale for police to use lethal restraint or tasers against someone they are holding, and it also plays right into racial preconceptions of Black men, reflecting and encouraging racial bias with deadly results.
Both George Floyd and Elijah McClain’s murderers used the defence of “excited delirium” and mentioned their victims’ irrational strength and hostility. Because “excited delirium” was stated as the cause of death on Daniel Prude’s death certificate in Rochester, New York in 2020, the officers who killed him were never charged. According to a Florida report published in 2019, deaths in police custody occurred in every single instance of “excited delirium” in which powerful stimulants like cocaine or meth were not present.
In a statement, Physicians for Human Rights criticised this diagnosis and how it is sometimes used to hide police killings. The American College of Emergency Physicians recently revoked its approval for its own 2009 report that gave the disease legitimacy. This year, the phrase has been rejected by a number of organisations, including the National Association of Medical Examiners. The medical profession as a whole is beginning to agree that the word is invalid and is rejecting it as a diagnostic.
However, it’s likely that police agencies all over the nation will keep using the false diagnosis as a retrospective defence for killing someone who was in their care. And because of racial stereotypes of “aggression” and “enhanced strength,” this person will most likely be a Black man.
The lesson learned from the delegitimization of the diagnostic of “excited delirium” is that if we see it mentioned in connection with a death while in police custody, we should assume that someone is trying to cover up a murder committed by police.
One other thing, both as a curiosity and out of personal interest: Sesame Street viewers of a certain vintage may remember the 18-year role of “David” that actor Northern Calloway portrayed on the show. While being held in a psychiatric facility, he passed away in 1990. Exhaustive psychosis, later termed as “excited delirium,” was listed as the cause of death. Therefore, there has been a lengthy history of this kind of coverup.