Cops don’t need more training
Robert Willett / The News & Observer via AP

Force, violence, and death are possible outcomes of any encounter with police. But racism is decisive in shaping how police treat citizens. A report published this week by the Chicago Office of the Inspector General reveals that police in that city disproportionately target Black people and subject them to force.

The report found that Black people make up approximately one-third of the city’s population, but are targeted for more than two-thirds of police stops, and are brutalized in more than four-fifths of the use of force incidents.

Use of force is defined, according to the report, as tackling people, subduing them by kneeling on them, beating or kicking them with hands, feet, or weapons, using a taser, tear gas, rubber bullets, or shooting them with an intent to wound or kill them.

The report revealed that Latinx people are more likely to be intentionally killed (or suffer from wounds caused by “the use of deadly force”) by police than non-Latinx people.

White people have the lowest rates of the use of force by Chicago police, according to the report.

The report studied a two-and-a-half-year period between October 2017 and February 2020. It echoed similar findings by a Department of Justice report in 2016. Little has changed in terms of racist disparities by Chicago police in their violent treatment of the city’s people.

The report studied more than 340,000 police stops and observed that Chicago cops skirted attempts at transparency about their actions by turning off their body cameras in tens of thousands of those incidents.

Turning off body cameras is just one way the police hide evidence of their actions when they abuse people in use-of-force incidents.

A new study for Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) found that law enforcement agencies regularly blame the deaths of individuals in police custody on a fake medical diagnosis they call “excited delirium.”

After Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd as three of his colleagues looked on, Chauvin’s defense lawyer raised the possibility of “excited delirium” as a justification for the killing.

Between 2010 and 2020, at least 166 deaths, of the hundreds in police custody, were attributed to “excited delirium.” An unknown number appears to have involved the use of force. Black and Latinx people were 56% of those who died under these mysterious circumstances.

International human rights lawyer Joanna Naples-Mitchell believes this is probably an undercount. “This is likely only the tip of the iceberg, as multiple studies have found that more than half of police killings are undercounted,” she noted.

The circumstances of such deaths remain mysterious because, as the PHR report finds, “‘excited delirium’ is not a valid, independent medical or psychiatric diagnosis. There is no clear or consistent definition, established etiology, or known underlying pathophysiology.”

The study showed that the false concept has been promoted by AXON (formerly called TASER), the maker of many police weapons, as a justification for the use of force by cops and a reason to buy more of the company’s equipment.

Indeed, “the term ‘excited delirium’ cannot be disentangled from its racist and unscientific origins,” PHR researchers found. Essentially, it encourages cops to believe that Black and Latinx men they encounter may be impervious to pain, have super strength, or be so mentally out of control that only force, even deadly force is may be necessary before they even engage with the person.

Forensic pathologist Dr. Joye Carter weighed in on law enforcement agencies’ use of the term. She stated that political jurisdictions that give elected officials (such as sheriffs or coroners instead of medical doctors) the power to determine the cause of death need to be reformed. Politicians sometimes intervene to protect law enforcement in situations where a person has died in police custody.

Citing her training and 30 years of experience as a medical examiner, Dr. Carter said, “Excited delirium is not a term I believe in. The use of that term takes away the ability for neutral, fact-finding investigation.”

Forensic pathology should be a politically neutral process of fact-gathering to determine the truth about the cause of death. “Excited delirium” shifts the blame for the person’s death from the actions of the cops to the person. When it is used, the actions of police do not come under scrutiny.

Further, companies like TASER/AXON have threatened medical professionals with lawsuits if they dispute the medical soundness of an “excited delirium” diagnosis. The PHR reports officers indicated that not only does the report give near blanket immunity to abusive or deadly police actions, but it also hides the truth about a person’s true medical situation.

If a person is experiencing a mental health crisis, they may not need police intervention. They may need a social worker or medical care. Advocates for defunding the police argue that public resources should be moved away from police violence to provide an array of social and medical services for people who otherwise would be harmed or killed by police.

Police don’t need more training, writes human rights lawyer Derecka Purnell in her recent book Becoming Abolitionists. “Police with more training would still be a risk.” Despite hundreds of millions of dollars spent on sensitivity, diversity, and de-escalation training, police still kill, beat, and target victims, she points out.

The Chicago Office of the Inspector General’s report noted, in fact, that “de-escalation tactics” are built into the training of the use of force. It is supposedly the preferred form of interaction between police and the public.

The evidence from reality tells a different story.

Community control over accountability processes, over funding for public safety, and over the determination of the relation of social services to public safety issues are a baseline start for needed reforms.


Joel Wendland-Liu
Joel Wendland-Liu

Joel Wendland-Liu teaches courses on diversity, intercultural competence, migration, and civil rights at Grand Valley State University in West Michigan. He is the author of "Mythologies: A Political Economy of U.S. Literature, Settler Colonialism, and Racial Capitalism in the Long Nineteenth Century" (International Publishers) and "The Collectivity of Life" (Lexington Books).