Little words, big consequences
Related article: P1 Exclusive: DOJ says potential for injury from CEDs is low
By Greg Meyer
In late June there occurred a very significant and potentially very problematic misunderstanding about electronic control devices (ECDs) and “excited delirium.” I urge those of you who deal with such matters in policy, training and legal environments to read this article closely.
On June 23, the National Institute of Justice released its “Study of Deaths Following Electro Muscular Disruption: Interim Report.” [Read it now] This report is the work of an impressive list of doctors, who are conducting an investigation of sudden in-custody deaths related to electronic control devices. The study is funded by the National Institute of Justice, which is an element of the Department of Justice.
The problem is that on the NIJ website, in late June there was a page that purportedly summarizes the interim report. Unfortunately, that web page contains a major inaccuracy, and the error was repeated by the mass media. The error occurs in the following passage:
- The panel's interim report said the risk of a death or serious injury is low when police use CEDs against healthy adults. Certain groups may be at much higher risk of injury or death from CEDs. These groups include children, the elderly, pregnant women, people who have heart disease and those who show signs of "excited delirium." Police officers should avoid the use of CEDs against these populations unless the situation excludes other choices. [Emphasis appears as in the original.]
The error is the group of eight words after “heart disease” in the fourth line of the above paragraph, i.e. “and those who show signs of ‘excited delirium.’ The problem is that the interim report does not say that!!!
The interim report actually states in several passages that there is no medical evidence to support the theory that it is dangerous to use ECDs on persons experiencing “excited delirium.”
After hours on June 25, by e-mail, I called this error to the attention of my high-level contact at DOJ, and expressed concern that the media would write stories based on the inaccurate summary appearing on the web page, resulting in widespread confusion. First thing in the morning of June 26, my contact acknowledged the error and stated that DOJ was discussing the issue. Hopefully by the time you read this, the NIJ web page has been corrected.
But, alas, it’s too late.
On June 26, Newsday.com reported the story, obviously not using the interim report but using the inaccurate summary page as a source. Newsday (and perhaps other media that get material from that agency) reported:
- The federal panel's preliminary report, released this week, is based on reviews of autopsies, toxicology reports and information on victims' medical care and health. The findings indicate stun guns pose a low risk of death, but some populations are more vulnerable, including children, pregnant women, people with heart disease and those with symptoms of "excited delirium." [emphasis added] [Read it now]
The Police Executive Research Forum in its June 26 edition of PERF Daily Clips printed a link to the Newsday story. PERF Daily Clips is distributed to PERF membership consisting of hundreds of law enforcement chiefs and executives worldwide.
This is where YOU come in, if you are a trainer or a policy maker!
If you don’t read and understand the actual interim report, and you react to the now-widely-disseminated (but inaccurate) summary, your thinking might go like this: Hmmmmm. All these doctors in an NIJ-funded study are telling me that people experiencing “excited delirium” have been added to the traditional electronic control device “vulnerable group” (the very old, the very young, people known to have heart problems, etc.). Therefore, my officers should stop using ECDs on persons experiencing “excited delirium.” So we’ll just have to go back to the days of beating these people down, causing severe injuries to officers and suspects as we go hands-on with flipped-out folks who have super-human strength.
Except that such a reaction would be wrong.
It would be based on erroneous words, words that do not even appear in the report that the words supposedly came from. And the words are completely counter to the advice of doctors who teach that it’s the hyperactivity that is killing people who are experiencing “excited delirium,” and that early use of ECDs is the best way to stop the hyperactivity and facilitate immediate medical treatment to sedate the flipped-out folks.
So please do your homework and be careful with this issue.
On the evening of June 26 (just before writing this article), I wrote to the reporter at Newsday.com (which provides material to many other publications) and requested that Newsday issue a correction. (I gave up after a half hour of trying to find a way to write the editor; I called his phone number, but there was no voicemail for it.)
Whether Newsday corrects the story or not, the misinformation cat is totally out of the bag.
I also wrote in my e-mail to Newsday, “As an expert witness involved in numerous cases of this nature around the country, I will tell you that it is just a matter of days and weeks until an attorney will hold up the erroneous document in front of a jury and badly affect a court case based upon false information.” So, if your agency is involved in ECD litigation, you might alert your attorneys about this potential issue so that it can be deflected before it is misused to confuse a jury.
Please read the actual report!
On the “good news” front, the interim report by all these doctors uses the “excited delirium” terminology, which is very welcome given the continuing blather by the naysayers that “excited delirium” is just something the police made up to justify hurting people.
Significantly, the interim report by the doctors also states:
- All CED use should conform to agency policies. The decision to use a CED or another force option is best left to the tactical judgment of trained law enforcement at the scene.
Sometime in 2009 we can expect to see the final report of the work group.
I also want to bring to your attention the forthcoming “Police Use of Force Conference” presented by the Institute for Law Enforcement Administration (ILEA) in Plano, Texas. The conference dates are September 29 through October 1. Some highlights:
• TASER: A Dialogue on Policies and Deployment in Law Enforcement (with Rick Smith, President, TASER International, and Peter Bibring, staff attorney, ACLU of Southern California)
• Less-Lethal Weapon Deployment, Policy and Training: Results from a National Survey (Dr. Lorie Fridell, University of South Florida)
• Use of Force, Excited Delirium and Deaths in Police Custody (Charles Wetli, former Chief Medical Examiner, Suffolk County, NY)
• Investigating Use of Force Incidents: Initiation to Conclusion (Commander Rick Webb and Captain Kris Pitcher, Los Angeles Police Department)
• Liability in Police Use of Force: Protecting Agencies and Individuals (Michael P. Stone, Esq., Stone Busailah, LLP, Los Angeles)
• Use of Force Continuum: An Essential Training Tool? (John Bostain, FLETC, and Steve Ijames, retired major, Springfield MO)
• Governance and Deployment of Taser: The Metropolitan Police Model (London) (Chief Inspector Rod Charles, New Scotland Yard)
• The After Action Review: Learning From Police Use of Force Incidents (General (Ret.) James “Pat: O’Neal, Seabrook, South Carolina)
• There will also be five breakout sessions on a variety of topics . . .
For further information about the ILEA “Police Use of Force Conference,” please contact ILEA at (972) 244-3430 or at www.theilea.org