Getting Tased, Part 2: Beware of the ‘excited delirium’

(Note: This story is the second feature in a two-part in a series. For more information, check out Getting Tased, Part One: How Taser International expects to make millions from fear mongering, slick marketing and the Republican National Convention)

Tasers were originally created as a firearm alternative—a weapon that didn’t kill, supposedly. But Tasers have become a popular police tool to use on suspects suffering from what Taser International calls “excited delirium," a term coined in the 1980s after cocaine use had become more widespread. According to the Minneapolis Police Department, all officers on the Crisis Intervention Team, which mostly deals with unarmed persons who are on drugs or mentally ill, carry a Taser. Experts say "excited delirium" is a mythical condition used to boast Taser sales, and that its increasing rationale in Taser use is leading to more deaths.

Since the firm Taser International went public in 2001, deaths from stun guns, or Tasers, have grown steadily. In fact, the increase has been so profound that the National Institute of Justice is conducting its own study on the weapons, to be released in 2009. There is no way to get accurate reporting before 2003 on deaths occurring during arrest, since, oddly enough, there was no central documentation of such deaths until a law passed in 2000 created the Deaths in Custody Reporting Program.

Even after its passage, the reporting program acknowledges huge gaps in departments reporting deaths from Tasers and/or stun-guns. What we do know is that at least 34 people have died in the United States this year after being Tased, two of them in the Twin Cities.

Here’s how one of those cases unfolded:

On Jan. 15, 29-year-old Mark Backlund is driving to the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport from New Brighton to pick up his parents during rush hour. Backlund crashes into a minivan on Interstate 694. Five Minnesota State Patrol officers, two of them in training, immediately arrive on the scene. About eight minutes later, Backlund is unresponsive after being Tased three times. He is pronounced dead at the hospital.

According to video released by the State Patrol, Backlund appears to slowly, confusedly reach for the ignition when an officer approaches his open passenger-side window. The image, which lasts about four seconds and came from a camera-equipped Taser, is the only close shot of Backlund the State Patrol recorded. The video cuts to a car-mounted video that records an officer asking “Sir, are you all right? Are you diabetic?” The officer tells the other two uniformed patrol offices that Backlund won’t respond to him.

Backlund then tries to swing at one of the officers, the State Patrol says. He is Tased once. Seconds later, Backlund is dragged from his car and laid face down on the shoulder of 694 while three officers restrain and Tase him at least two more times. Backlund struggles and screams for five minutes before falling silent.

At this point, at about eight minutes into the video, the trainees are laughing at an answer to a question that’s unintelligible. Then one asks, “Did you get a good Taser video?” He looks back at the flashing cop car. Backlund is still silent. About 30 seconds pass until someone says, “He is not responsive.” No one administers CPR.

“He’s got blood all over his face,” someone mentions on two occasions as cops and paramedics hover over him, presumably clean up his face, and place him on a stretcher. Almost three minutes go by between the moment Backlund is announced as “unresponsive” and the time he is placed in the ambulance that has been on the scene the entire time.

Later, an autopsy on Backlund will be inconclusive. According to the report, he also had cocaine and prescription drugs in his system.

At one point in the video, an officer says that when he arrived on the scene, before Backlund was Tased, that Backlund appeared “stunned.” Indeed, Backlund appears like he’d just been in a car accident.

A serious disorder or a serious con?

Canadian police psychologist Mike Webster says using Tasers on suspects who appear confused or agitated is fairly common. Even those behaviors are what Taser International calls “excited delirium,” an unexplained hysteria that can cause death, as Taser has claimed in court.

Webster has trained officers for more than 30 years in crisis intervention. He’s consulted with both the FBI and RMCP in Canada in conflict disputes and dealing with suspects in crisis situations. He says “excited delirium” is not a real psychological diagnosis, but a cunning way of turning common behaviors cops encounter every day into an affliction that turns people into unpredictable monsters possessed by the unknown. “There’s no reputable medical or psychological or psychiatric association that recognizes it as a disorder,” Webster says.

Webster says Taser International’s marketing has served to create an expectation in police officers that the only way to deal with someone in that situation is with a Taser. “When you see someone who is exhibiting these behavioral characteristics—they’re agitated, they’re incoherent, they’re sweating profusely, they’re aggressive—immediately the police person thinks, this is ‘excited delirium.’ Can’t deal with them. I need to Taser them.”

According to Webster, police departments have simply replaced crisis intervention tactics with Tasers. “Crisis intervention training or first-response training teaches officers to assist people in regaining their mental balance by speaking in calm tones, adopting neutral body postures. That’s not happening. And if the only tool you have in your tool box is a hammer then the whole world starts to look like a nail. Soon, everybody looks like they’re suffering from excited delirium.”

Call it ‘usage creep’

Minneapolis Police Department spokesperson Sgt. William Palmer says that all 135 officers on the department’s Crisis Intervention Team, which deals primarily with mentally ill persons, are required to carry a Taser. In 2006, a Taser was deployed in 232 Minneapolis police encounters. (Palmer was unable to supply numbers for 2007 and 2008.)

“Tasers are not really designed to be used against persons who are armed,” he says. “It can be done, and is taught with the addition of lethal backup, but this training is primarily for persons armed with edged weapons, not firearms. We use the Taser many, many more times on persons who are not armed. The Taser is a tool primarily to be used on persons who exhibit physical resistance to officers.”

Palmer says that officers on the Crisis Intervention Team can use the Taser if the person is physically resistive to officers. “The Taser is the restraint tool of choice for persons who are under the influence of mood-altering substances or who are in mental health crisis, as it is not a pain compliance tool,” Palmer says. “Persons in these conditions often do not feel pain and other pain compliance tools and techniques are not as effective.”

Webster challenges this notion. “To me, that is unacceptable, “ he says. “The initial, permissible usage scenario did not include using the weapon as a come-along or a time-saver. That is usage creep. There has been a tremendous creep away from the original, permissive usage scenario for this weapon, which was to prevent grievous bodily harm.”

A Taser monopoly

One of the biggest proponents of Tasers who has become a de facto spokesperson for “excited delirium” is John G. Peters, founder of the Institute for the Prevention of In-Custody Deaths — an organization dedicated to training officers in recognizing and managing “excited delirium.” Peters is also is an adjunct faculty member in the Taser Training Academy.

But that’s not the only specious connection Peters — who has been called to testify on “excited delirium” — has to Taser International. Peters — whose résumé lists a B.A. in criminal justice, an M.B.A. and a Ph.D. in applied management from various colleges — also bills himself as a litigation consultant and expert witness who charges $5,000 for case development with an expert report and $2,000 per day for depositions and testimony.

At a recent public inquiry into the use of Tasers by police in Vancouver, B.C., Dr. Zian Tseng, a San Francisco cardiologist and electrophysiologist, told the panel that the Taser creates serious risks to the heart. Tseng began studying Tasers three years ago, and found the device could induce cardiac arrhythmia.

And though Minneapolis police tend to use the Tasers more on people on “mood-altering substances” than not, according to Palmer, Tseng said the risk of death from the Taser shock is far greater if there is adrenaline or illicit drugs coursing through the body or if the person has a history of heart or other medical issues.

When Tseng first announced to a San Francisco journalist that he was studying the weapon, he was immediately contacted by Taser International, which offered him a grant to pay for his research. Unlike Peters, Tseng declined Taser International’s offer.

Webster finds Taser’s response to Tseng chilling. “Taser has a monopoly on this,” he says. “Taser created the instrument. Taser manufactures the instrument. Taser trains people on the instrument. Taser pays for studies. They’ve got an entire monopoly.

“If we know the device was safe, it’d be one thing," he says. "But we know people are dying from it.”

And so far, Taser International has only lost one wrongful death suit of the at least 69 filed against the company. Backlund’s family is still looking into the cause of his death.

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