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Excited Delirium: Junk Science Used to Shield Cops Who Brutalize and Kill

by Jo Ellen Nott

As part of the movement to reform policing in a nation shell-shocked by police brutality, oversight groups are starting to focus on the “excited delirium” justification for using lethal force in subduing suspects.

The Minneapolis Police Department is one of the first departments in the nation that has been called upon to remove “excited delirium” training by a police oversight commission. 

According to the Washington Post, “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. 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.” Bloomberg Law describes excited delirium “as at best questioned by the medical community and, at worst, condemned by it.” 

A group of neurologists at the Brookings Institute points out two problems with using the “excited delirium” pretext to subdue a suspect. First, it becomes a convenient scapegoat cause of death after a violent confrontation, and secondly, it becomes a justification for police aggression that is unwarranted.  The group offers these three solutions: (1) medically trained professionals should be the primary responders and decision makers in emergencies such as drug intoxication or acute psychosis. If police involvement cannot be avoided, de-escalation strategies need to be employed and officers must be given more training than the current average of 8 hours in de-escalation. (2) The medical community must denounce vigorously the validity of the “excited delirium” diagnosis noting that many authors who have written reports in medical literature have financial conflicts of interests with law enforcement and the Axon corporation. (3) Federal officials must gather data about police custody death and report it to the public pursuant to the 2013 Death in Custody Reporting Act.  


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