New Bill Would Stop Cops From Citing Debunked ‘Excited Delirium’ Syndrome

Referencing a New York Focus story, Assemblymember Jessica González-Rojas introduced legislation to prevent public agencies from naming the medically discredited condition in their reports.

Chris Gelardi   ·   March 19, 2024
New York City Police Department members stand in a line wearing NYPD baseball caps.
First deployment of NYPD's Critical Response Command counterterrorism unit in 2016. | Spencer T Tucker / New York City Police Department

Citing a New York Focus report, state Assemblymember Jessica González-Rojas introduced a bill last week that would effectively ban public agencies from referencing a largely debunked medical syndrome long used to justify deaths in police custody.

Authorities have cited the ailment, known as “excited delirium syndrome,” in some of the country’s highest-profile police killings in recent years, including those of George Floyd and Elijah McClain. While the medical establishment has rejected the syndrome as too vague to be scientifically sound, some departments, including the New York City Police Department, still teach cops to look for it. In December, New York Focus revealed that the NYPD trains recruits on broad criteria to spot excited delirium — and subdue supposed sufferers with stun guns and pepper spray.

“The fact that the police are still using a pseudoscience diagnosis to justify the murders of people of color and communities of color is unacceptable,” said González-Rojas, a Democrat from Queens.

Excited delirium became popular in the late 2000s, when the manufacturers of Tasers and other tactical weapons pushed it as a way to explain deaths in police custody. The syndrome’s boosters link it to drug use and say it turns people into violent, super strong aggressors. They also claim it can lead to cardiac arrest. Its associated symptoms include agitation, disorientation, and rapid breathing — which can have any number of underlying causes.

“It has no basis in science,” said Joanna Naples-Mitchell, a research adviser for Physicians for Human Rights who has written about the history of excited delirium.

Along with police reform groups Campaign Zero and the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, her organization began consulting medical and legal professionals two years ago to write language now included in the bill, Naples-Mitchell said. “The law is reflecting where the science is.”

González-Rojas’s bill would invalidate excited delirium as a defense in civil and criminal lawsuits. It would also prohibit public agencies and contractors from referencing the syndrome in reports, procedures, policies, death certificates, and autopsy reports.

After Rochester police killed 41-year-old Daniel Prude in 2020 by putting a hood over his face and pinning him to the pavement for two minutes, an autopsy report included excited delirium as a contributing factor in his death. The New York attorney general’s office, which tried and failed to indict the officers involved, later issued a report arguing that first responders “must be trained to recognize the symptoms of excited delirium syndrome and to respond to it as a serious medical emergency.”

By that time, the American Psychological Association had denounced the syndrome. The American Medical Association soon followed suit, decrying it as “justification for excessive police force, disproportionately cited in cases where Black men die in law enforcement custody.”

The state Office of the Attorney General declined to comment. The Rochester Police Department did not respond to a request for comment.

The NYPD trains recruits to spot excited delirium — and subdue supposed sufferers with stun guns and pepper spray.

In 2020, when the largest protest movement in United States history fought against racism and police brutality, Prude’s name became a rallying cry. After an attempted cover-up, Rochester’s top police brass resigned, and advocates and reform legislators wrote Daniel’s Law, a bill that would order trained counselors, instead of police, to respond to people experiencing mental health crises in New York state.

The state Senate majority supports Daniel’s Law and is now pushing to fund a pilot version in this year’s budget. But the law would not touch excited delirium, allowing authorities to continue citing it.

González-Rojas’s bill seeks to fill that gap, following New York Focus’s reporting on NYPD training procedures. Through a public records request, New York Focus obtained training documents showing that the department instructs cops to consider deploying velcro restraining straps and pepper spray, which “will cause the subject’s eyes to involuntarily close, even if they are insensitive to pain.” The documents also showed that the department has attempted to establish connections between excited delirium and synthetic marijuana use.

The NYPD did not respond to a request for comment.

“The fact that this diagnosis is used against mostly men of color with this false narrative of superhuman strength is really deeply problematic,” González-Rojas said. Its rejection by the medical establishment, she added, “leverages the need to remove this from any form of death certificates, reports, police reports,” and the like.

Naples-Mitchell hopes the bill will become a model for states across the country. Last year, California became the first state to sign an excited delirium prohibition into law. Colorado, Hawai’i, and Minnesota are considering similar bills.

González-Rojas’s bill has been referred to the Assembly’s health committee. She said she expects to add a Senate sponsor shortly.

Chris Gelardi is a reporter for New York Focus investigating the state’s criminal-legal system. His work has appeared in more than a dozen other outlets, most frequently The Nation, The Intercept, and The Appeal. He is a past recipient of awards from Columbia… more
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