Leading the National Discussion on Policing

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As our nation continues to wrestle with police reform, many Americans are eager to join the conversation. What they are finding is that understanding and fairly judging police practices is not easy. Those of you with careers in criminal justice are likely fielding calls from friends and family wanting to know the difference between carotid restraints and respiratory restraints—two terms you are certain they didn’t know a week ago.

Not surprisingly, experts at the Force Science Institute have also seen a rapid increase in requests for information and interviews. Certainly from friends and family, but more consistently from police executives, attorneys, legislators, and the media. The range of topics has been impressive, and, more often than not, the questions seem to come from an honest attempt to understand policing.

Getting Oriented

For many callers, including the journalists, talking with researchers, doctors, or attorneys who specialize in police practices and human performance is a first. They find the topics are more complex than they initially thought but are relieved to learn that research, training, and articles have been aimed at these topics for years—even those they believed were “novel” or “controversial.”

To help journalists prepare for interviews, we offer relevant articles from Force Science News. In fact, with rare exception, we have been able to provide multiple articles on each subject. One exception has been the “fear-based” training hypothesis. We are not aware of any research on “fear-based” training, but we did confirm our unequivocal support for “reality-based” training.

For those hoping to understand the evolution of evidence-based training, we have been directing them to our Force Science News library. The free library holds well over 400 articles, dating back 15 years. It contains summaries and expert commentary for high-profile events, equipment development, civil and criminal cases, and, of course, human performance research. Although it was not the intent of the publication, the library serves to show where the profession has been, where it has grown, and where it has stood the test of time.

For those wanting a more detailed look at Force Science research, we have provided links on our website to each of our 27 peer-reviewed studies.

Hot Topic: Excited Delirium

If your experience is like ours, many of you may find that the topics people most want to discuss are topics we view as important but not particularly “novel” or “controversial.” Even so, some topics have simply captured the public’s attention.

One such topic that continues to resurface is excited delirium. For those not familiar with excited delirium, the American Medical Association notes:

Excited delirium is a widely accepted entity in forensic pathology and is cited by medical examiners to explain the sudden in-custody death of individuals who are combative and in a highly agitated state. Excited delirium is broadly defined as a state of agitation, excitability, paranoia, aggression, and apparent immunity to pain, often associated with stimulant use and certain psychiatric disorders.1

Despite medical cases documenting this phenomenon for over 150 years, critics continue to describe excited delirium as a controversial syndrome “invented” to absolve officers from excessive force. It is easy to imagine the confusion felt by those entering these discussions for the first time, especially if the conversation comes in the wake of an in-custody death that has left families broken and departments scrambling to understand the cause.

For those who have approached us on the excited delirium issue, we avoid commenting on any specific case. Instead, we explain the public safety purpose behind excited delirium training, direct callers to our relevant articles, and expose the vulnerability of the critics’ arguments.

The “Pseudo-science” of Excited Delirium?

There seems to be a predictable strategy shared by those hoping to resurrect the excited delirium debate. First, they will note that the term is not found in the International Classification of Diseases and is therefore not relied on by the American Medical Association. Next, they will add that the diagnosis is not used by the American Psychiatric Association. Finally, if a targeted organization uses the term excited delirium, the critics will conclude the organization is advancing “pseudo-science” and imply the organization shouldn’t be believed; on this or any other issue.

Ironically, the “pseudo-science” attack continues to backfire on critics and media outlets, signaling their bias or incompetence. That’s because excited delirium syndrome has been recognized by the National Association of Medical Examiners and the American College of Emergency Physicians since 2009. Although medical experts might debate the primary cause of death in a specific case, neither the syndrome nor its most commonly associated symptoms are controversial.

Critics who attempt to undermine police credibility by attacking excited delirium, find themselves on the exact wrong side of their community’s interests.

Excited delirium training is not limited to post-incident investigations and evidence collection. Force Science also conducts excited delirium training in the context of de-escalation courses, where officers learn to adjust their communication, persuasion, and de-escalation strategies while assessing the possibility of a medical crisis.

Even so, post-incident investigations and on-scene de-escalation are not the primary goals of excited delirium education. The driving purpose of “excited delirium” training is to save lives. 

Officers properly trained to recognize excited delirium as a potentially fatal medical condition, are also more likely to practice arrest and restraint techniques that mitigate the risk to the patient. They are more likely to have planned, trained, and initiated a cooperative emergency response with dispatchers, emergency medical services, and hospital emergency staff.

Far from pseudo-science, excited delirium response training is recognized as a law enforcement best-practice by Lexipol, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the Institute for the Prevention of In-Custody Deaths, and the Force Science Institute.

Preparing for the Next Chapter         

Many of you have trained, mentored, and supervised police. Your friends, families, and communities will undoubtedly benefit from your unique insights into the challenges facing our nation. Force Science graduates, more than ever, have the opportunity to share the impact that human performance research has on police practices.

During these coming weeks and months, it is almost certain that you will be confronted by those who sincerely view the police (and those who support them) as the problem. Use of force training and education is increasingly viewed as the product of fear-based, warrior training. The irony is that prior to any use of force, your training and education is precisely what led to the tactics and strategies that allow you to reduce the need for force or avoid it altogether.

Those honestly committed to transparency and procedural justice will have to admit that the expertise of highly trained investigators is what enables your agencies, courts, and communities to fairly assess the judgment and conduct of those involved.

Force Science will continue to lead discussions with government and community leaders across the nation. Reach out to us with questions or just for a sanity check.

If our full-time staff can’t answer your questions, we have an instructor staff that includes medical doctors, Ph.D. psychologists, litigation attorneys, legal and policy attorneys with advanced law degrees, and trainers with extensive law enforcement, research, and expert witness experience. The combined accomplishments of our affiliated researchers and instructors include over 400 research articles and several textbooks. Email us your questions. Often we can respond right away and frequently we will have someone call you.

There are hard conversations ahead between our police, government leaders, and communities. Many of you will be in the middle of them. Let us know how we can help as we all lead local and national discussions on policing.

  1. See REPORT 6 OF THE COUNCIL ON SCIENCE AND PUBLIC HEALTH (A-09), Use of Tasers® by Law Enforcement Agencies (Reference Committee D), at https://www.ama-assn.org/sites/ama-assn.org/files/corp/media-browser/public/about-ama/councils/Council%20Reports/council-on-science-public-health/a09-csaph-tasers.pdf []
7 Responses
  1. Great article Von! Hits each area that executives, trainers and leaders need to know. The also need to know THEY must get out and SPEAK on these issues and not remain silent. Silence is our greater enemy. Silence allows the anti law enforcement media to run rampant with false information.
    Thank you and the Force Science Team for your continued research, expertise and knowledge.

  2. Don Black

    Good article. Unfortunately, in Colorado, the legislature has reacted emotionally and passed legislation that will cripple law enforcement. They are reforming something they know nothing about. Even more tragic is the fact that law enforcement. administrators know very little and will not speak up. Facts don’t seem to matter at all now. The legislation passed creates vague definitions of force that is to be used and liability for misuse.

  3. Martin Zeller

    As always, you are at the forefront of understanding; and giving the police community ANY chance of reaching an understanding with our communities and politicians. I would stress the need for you to reach out more to police administrators from the Chief/Commissioner level on down, to have the greatest impact. I see lots of officers paying attention, but the administrators seem to be more noncommital.

  4. Michael Flascher

    Great article, but when administrators who run departments, as well as government officials fail to realize that their training and understanding of the science behind use of force issues is lacking, and when they cannot explain the need for certain techniques, the media gets to deliver a one sided story. Due to this everyone suffers from the officers involved, to the person being apprehended, to the public who gets misinformation. While the narrative is that officers need more training, which I agree with, I also believe those who are in the administration departments need more training as well. It wouldn’t hurt to put a training on for some government officials as well.

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