Excited delirium

>> Sunday, May 04, 2008

Let us suppose, for a moment, that we have a dead man. This hypothetical dead man died during an altercation with police, in the course of which he was targeted with a "non-lethal" weapon that administered several 50,000 volt shocks, the first on initial contact with the electrode darts and subsequent shorter shocks administered by the law-enforcement officer handling the weapon.

At some point in the encounter, our hypothetical target of the electroshock weapon, a Taser™, went into cardiac arrest. He was rushed to an emergency room, instead of the jail, and efforts to resuscitate him failed.

Obviously some examination of the body will be necessary to determine actual cause of death. But, if you were to check your gut for a quick suspicion of what might have killed the man, the Taser™ hits or something referred to as "excited delirium" that isn't actually recognized by any medical manuals, what would you suspect the cause of death was? If you were the medical examiner, would you check to see if a series of electric shocks peaking at 50,000 volts were implicated in the cause of death, or would you focus your investigation on "excited delirium."

Did you say you'd suspect the Taser™? Well, you're wrong. The cause of death, absent any other clues, must have been "excited delirium." Because Tasers™, by definition, are "non-lethal" weapons.

Or at least that's the state of the law in a county in Ohio, where TASER International has convinced a judge to order the alteration of three post-mortem reports to reflect a cause of death more consistent with the obvious reality that Tasers™ protect life: it says so right on their website. It would appear that medical examiners who aren't with the program, and who list the cause of death as "taser," are being sued by the company that manufactures the devices. Good for TASER International, that's a good way to show those pesky ignorant doctors with their ridiculous medical degrees and ridiculous licensing requirements to practice.

There are two issues that are stupefying here. The first is the continued breach between science and law in this country. While I don't know that there actually is a final word on the lethality of tasering in the medical community, there is no getting around the fact that TASER International is trying to use the law to chill any attempt to link their product--which administers electrical shocks to incapacitate a target--to injuries or deaths (granting the absence of conclusive scientific evidence, it seems a commonsense hypothesis that administering powerful electric shocks to somebody might, in fact, cause unforeseen and lethal injuries). The galling irony is that the Anglo-American legal process is a product of the same Enlightenment ideals that ultimately produced Science as we now know it, and is based on similar principles: that is, our legal system presumes that truth is knowable and absolute, and can be arrived at through a process of inquiry in which evidence is evaluated and untenable hypothesis are discarded until truth is arrived at to a near certainty. You can certainly object that the law doesn't achieve that result or that science has deviated from that philosophical model in some respects, but the point is that the law used to attempt to be a scientific or quasi-scientific process and the popular pastime of using it to quash inquiries into truth or to advance disinformation isn't merely offensive, it's a kind of rape.

The second, and more specific, issue is one that I can only present as a feeling based on anecdote and personal observation, and you may feel free to discard it as such. This is the sense I have that the Taser's™ supposedly non-lethal nature has had a contrary result and been the cause of some abuse of a weapon that seems much more reasonable on paper. On paper, one thinks that arming law-enforcement officers with a non-lethal weapon makes everyone safer and happier, but I suspect that what happens in practice is that officers who armed with an allegedly "non-lethal" weapon are more prone to use it with less discretion. In general, law-enforcement officers armed with firearms are less inclined to draw them and extremely hesitant to use them: drawing the firearm is a penultimate act and actually pulling the trigger irrevocable. Forget the tacky jokes about paperwork: most police officers with a lethal weapon in their hands will not use it unless they are morally certain at the moment that they have no other choice. But give officers "harmless" Tasers™ and they seem to come out all the time, any why not? There's no need to try to talk a subject down or look for an alternative: you're not going to hurt him, you're just going to give him a little shock like the one you got when you were trained to use the weapon. And if you have to discharge the weapon again because the first little shock didn't quite do it, well how could the second (or third, or fourth, or...) shock be worse than the first one?

So I have this very bad feeling--it's nothing I could ever prove--that Tasers™ turn out to be far more dangerous than firearms precisely because there's this belief that they're not dangerous. They seem to get drawn and used far more often than firearms, and in situations where no rational officer would imagine drawing a firearm. (There are irrational and trigger-happy police officers--we're not talking about them right now.) I'd like to do the last thing on Earth TASER International would want done: a study to determine whether Tasers™ are more likely to be used and abused than traditional firearms with an eye towards heavily restricting their use (no standard issuance to law-enforcement officers) or even outlawing them if my Very Bad Feeling were confirmed.

It's unlikely to happen. There's money in those magical problem-solving devices from TASER International--what problem can't be solved by tasering someone or other? And then there's this kind of thing, this case in Ohio where TASER has shoved rags in the doctors' mouths. But what am I talking about, anyway? Sure, "excited delirium" sounds reasonable enough, that sounds just like a cause of death; certainly more likely than "electrocuted by a police officer abusing the use of a 'non-lethal' suppression weapon under circumstances where use of the weapon was excessive, unwarranted, or caused unforeseen health complications in the decedent." Let us suppose we have a dead man; what could have killed him, indeed?


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