Debunking 6 myths about in-custody death

Chris Lawrence offers the following about the misconceptions surrounding in-custody deaths and injuries to law enforcement trainers


When an in-custody death turns a police officer into a homicide suspect, the very system that is designed to provide a fair and objective investigation can be biased in favor of misinformation and bad science. 

Chris Lawrence has been training police officers on the use of force and officer safety for 31 years. He has reviewed and analyzed significant research on law enforcement-related custody deaths. While this research must be reviewed and evaluated by trainers and experts, a quick summary of major misinformation is helpful as a starting point. 

At this year’s ILEETA conference, Lawrence offered the following observations about the misconceptions surrounding in-custody deaths and injuries. (Note: Any policy or procedure decisions made by law enforcement professionals must be based on his or her own interpretation of the relevant research) 

1. Excited Delirium Isn’t a Real Thing: False

Saying excited delirium isn’t real is like saying a tummy ache isn’t real. Whether or not this label describes a condition medically recognized as a diagnosis, the phenomenon does exist. Further, there are immediate treatment protocols that include a critical response time.

Restraining a subject in order to provide medical attention is imperative for the subject’s survival. Doing so is not an arrest for justice system purposes, but rather a rescue for emergency treatment purposes. The restraining process is not likely to be the actual cause of any subsequent death, based on the best and most current research.

2. Electronic Weapons are High Risk: False

One of the most comprehensive and objective studies of CEW devices was funded by the Canadian government for the purpose of determining the risk profile of these weapons used by Canadian law enforcement to assure the public of their safety. While the risk of a cardiac event hasn’t been ruled out, the overwhelming evidence argues against it. 

3. Neck Restraints Cause Permanent Damage: False

The most damaging thing about neck restraints is that they are mislabeled as ‘chokeholds.’ Lawrence says that the term should disappear.

No training recommends compressing the breathing mechanics of the neck. Vascular neck restraints that are used in law enforcement are maneuvers that restrict blood flow to or from the brain. Controlled experiments using volunteers show no likelihood of permanent brain damage or permanent blood vessel damage or other injuries when various neck restraints are used properly and result in loss of consciousness consistent with fainting.

4. Pepper Spray Can Suffocate: False

Like most of the tactics listed here, OC use has been around long enough to create a large body of evidence. One interesting fact is that the active ingredient in pepper spray has been used in medical testing with no significant ill effect. The effect of a spray does not increase with repeated use, and those who are exposed start breathing normally very quickly. 

5. Prone Positioning Results in Positional Asphyxia: False

Many “experts” make reference to an old research report that studied deaths using discredited research procedures. Studies on prone subjects, both from cases in the field and controlled experiments show no mortality directly related to a person laying on his stomach for a relatively short period of time, even with some weight and with hands behind their back. 

6. All Doctors Understand the Mechanics of Police Restraint: False

Each of the conditions mentioned has been convincingly excluded as a primary cause of death, despite the testimony of some physicians. Medical doctors have inherent credibility, but without an understanding of police procedures and if unfamiliar with current research, they may rely on old information and myths. Their testimony is subject to an effective challenge on the witness stand by a well-informed counsel.  

Many assumptions about the cause and effect relationship between death and the actions of law enforcement immediately prior to death are made using a process of exclusion in the absence of knowledge of any other cause. Mortality rates among arrestees are not higher than that of similar non-law enforcement-related deaths. In addition, a close examination of those who die in custody shows overwhelmingly that there are often a number of complex multifactorial events that cannot be excluded as a cause of death, and impossible for a police officer to assess. 

The good news is that while some subjects, unfortunately, die in custody, survival and rescue rates of persons in police custody are good. Police officers can have renewed confidence that science is often on their side when professionalism rules. 

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