BART Police Department, or BART PD, removed “excited delirium,” a controversial psychiatric condition used by law enforcement, from its policy manual and future written reports, according to a BART PD press release.
The term “excited delirium” has disproportionately been used to label the deaths of people of color in police custody, according to campus professor of law and bioethics Osagie Obasogie. Obasogie’s research has shown that from 2010 to 2020, at least 56% of deaths in police custody that were attributed to excited delirium were Black and Latine people.
BART PD noted in the press release that the removal of this term is part of an ongoing effort by the department to be more progressive and racially equitable.
“Excited delirium is thought to be a psychiatric condition that can lead people to become so agitated that they spontaneously die,” Obasogie said in an email. “It is often used by law enforcement to explain how or why someone dies in police custody — often to suggest that they died because of their own health issues and not because of how they were treated by the police.”
According to Joanna Naples-Mitchell, a Physicians for Human Rights U.S. research advisor, excited delirium began as a medical term in the 1980s by human toxication researcher and pathologist Charles Wetli, but became widely used by nonmedical professionals, namely law enforcement officers.
A key issue with the terminology is that there is no one set definition of excited delirium, Naples-Mitchell said. She added that issues with excited delirium are inflated as symptoms associated with the condition are “overtly racist” in nature, including terminology such as “superhuman strength.”
“If an officer is trained to believe that someone has superhuman strength, or is impervious to pain, they’re more likely to use excessive force against that person,” Naples-Mitchell said. “It puts them in danger of greater harm when they’re experiencing a medical emergency and really need a medical emergency response to what they’re experiencing.”
Russell Bloom, BART’s independent police auditor, said the office had been aware for some time of issues surrounding the term excited delirium. According to Bloom, the term has been a “catch all” that minimizes the role of police when reporting a death by force under police custody.
Bloom said it was an investigator of his that found research from Physicians for Human Rights, leading the independent auditor’s office to present their findings to BART PD’s chief of police and command staff. Working with then Deputy Chief Angela Averiett, Bloom’s office discussed the racist history of excited delirium and the removal of the phrase from BART PD’s training materials and written documentation.
Within BART PD, excited delirium had been used eight times per year between 2019 and 2021, according to Bloom. He noted that the term was not related to a death when used in this period.
“It was more meaningful than just the removal of the words from the manual or the disuse,” Bloom said. “It was an acknowledgment of the evolution of the culture of police that could recognize that something that was very familiar and common in policing may not be appropriate for use.”