'Excited delirium' case raises taser questions
Published Sunday, March 11, 2007 5:16PM EDT
FREDERICTON - A New Brunswick man's death due to a mysterious malady called excited delirium has raised more questions about police arrest techniques and the growing use of stun guns.
Kevin Geldart, 34, of Moncton, N.B., died after he was repeatedly shocked with Taser weapons by RCMP officers in 2005.
It was another in a long series of deaths in North America following the use of police force and Taser guns to control people who are described as combative, irrational and extraordinarily strong.
In most of these cases, the cause of death is difficult to pinpoint and is often attributed to cardiac arrest, drug intoxication or a combination of the two.
But a New Brunswick coroner's inquest into Geldart's death earlier this month ruled that the large, mentally ill man died of excited delirium -- a condition that cannot be found in medical or psychiatric text books.
"Excited delirium is not a diagnosis used in psychiatry,'' says Dr. Roumen Milev of the Mood Disorders Clinic at the Providence Continuing Care Centre in Kingston, Ont.
"It does not exist as such either in the American Psychiatric Association's diagnostic and statistical manual, or in the World Health Organization's international classification of diseases.''
Critics say excited delirium exists purely in the imaginations of those who are anxious to defend the use of Taser weapons and excessive police force.
Eric Balaban, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, says that blaming excited delirium for in-custody deaths could be a way of whitewashing inappropriate use of force by police.
"It's not recognized as a mental-health diagnosis,'' Balaban says.
"It is really used only by medical examiners to attribute the cause of death of an arrestee following a violent scuffle with police officers.''
Whatever excited delirium may be, it is characterized by extreme agitation, incoherence, bizarre behaviour, often superhuman strength and a high body temperature.
It is associated with drug abuse and mental illness, and occurs often in people who, like Geldart, are very large. Geldart was tall and weighed at least 350 pounds.
Family members and friends of people who die during police Taser arrests are almost always unsatisfied with descriptions of the cause of death and the fact that the police are exonerated.
One of Geldart's relatives has called for a moratorium on the use of Tasers until more is known about the effects of the weapon on people, especially on those with mental illness.
So far, 212 people in North America have died following custody struggles with Taser-wielding police officers -- at least 15 of them in Canada, where the weapon has been used since 2001.
In all cases, the stun gun has been cleared of any direct involvement in the deaths, even in cases like Geldart's, where there were eight Taser injuries to his body and head.
"I'm not aware of any case in the world where the conductive energy weapon has been found to be the factor that caused death,'' Sgt. Richard Groulx, an RCMP training and tactical weapons expert, told the New Brunswick inquest.
The Taser delivers a pulsating, 50,000-volt electrical current through the body, and police say it can pierce clothing four centimetres thick.
The shock, which lasts up to five seconds, locks muscles instantly and overrides the central nervous system.
Dr. Deborah Mash, professor of neurology at the University of Miami and a leading expert in North America on excited delirium, says the ultimate goal of her research is to establish a protocol so police know how to handle people exhibiting signs of the condition.
Mash says excited delirium is a real brain disorder.
"There are clearly neuro-chemical changes in the brain,'' she says. "There is a defect. The issue of police brutality is simply wrong. That's not to say it can't occur, but when the police are confronted by someone exhibiting superhuman strength like a Hulk Hogan ... what can they do?''
Mash says the phenomenon came to light in the 1980s, when crack cocaine first burst onto the Florida drug scene.
She says many victims have cocaine or drugs in their systems, although mentally ill people like Geldart, who was bipolar, are also susceptible.
"It doesn't have to be drug-related,'' she says. "There are a number of triggers that will pop the switch.''
Mash says no one knows the best intervention techniques for police when confronted by an individual in the throes of excited delirium.
She says she hopes a standard of practice can be developed.
She also says research may ultimately unlock a clear diagnosis of the disorder, so victims can be identified before they run into trouble.
"Thanks to advances in molecular biology, we have an opportunity to look for the first time for real diagnostic markers, and that's what we need,'' Mash says.