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SRSLY: Excitedly Delirious: Sounds Great If It Didn’t Mean You’re Dead

Your three-minute read on the best reporting you probably missed.


The best reporting you probably missed

David Epstein

Welcome to SRSLY, an (experimental) newsletter highlighting under-exposed accountability journalism. We'll distill the important information from investigative reporting you probably missed, and deliver it to you in three-minutes-or-less worth of reading. Sign up to have it delivered to your inbox. (You can, of course, unsubscribe at the first whiff of a bad joke.)

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MainMuck: A Case of The Vapors?

In the Victorian Era, women who were upset (you would be too if you had to wear a corset) might be ascribed a case of the “vapors.” It seems to have been a derogatory diagnosis that could encompass anything from premenstrual syndrome to “female hysteria.” (I would better describe that for you, except I only have first-hand experience with male hysteria.) The bottom line is that it was some kind of catch-all diagnosis that was so broad as to have little meaning at all, and perhaps many of the conditions it referred to didn’t really exist. Which brings us to “excited delirium,” a fairly nebulous term that — according to an investigation by The Influence** — has a habit of showing up in coroner’s reports when someone dies in police custody. This week’s three W’s: What is it? Why do I care? What now?

What is it?

As The Influence puts it: “Excited delirium is a very strange thing.” Ah. It’s not recognized by the American Medical Association or the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders — the bible of mental ailments. But the American College of Emergency Physicians say that it indeed exists as the result of a poorly understood stew of drug use, mental illness, and a highly stressful situation that can cause one’s physiology to freak out and shut down handy automatic functions like breathing.

Why do I care?

The Influence documented cases around the country in which excited delirium is used to explain deaths in police custody, even amid more obvious factors. The doctor who coined the phrase in the 1980s surmised that a slew of sex workers who had used crack were subsequently sent to their excitedly delirious deaths by a single sex act. Except, The Influence noted, it turns out it was just boring old asphyxiation, probably by a serial killer. The Influence highlighted more recent cases in which excited delirium was given as the cause of death when evidence showed police restraint techniques had impaired arrestees’ breathing.

What now?

The Influence reported that some police instruction manuals could do with a bit of editing, as they contain pretty confusing advice about which restraint techniques aren’t likely to, ya know, kill people. Another problem is that when a person dies maybe of excited delirium, police reports sometimes leave out details that point to a simpler explanation. And, as an entirely separate Chicago Tribune investigation made clear, many police face no repercussions for omitting details or even taking the witness stand and “testilying.” Or, as you know it: “lying.”

(h/t @JustinElliott)

**If you’re wondering what the heck The Influence is, so were we. It’s a new, small publication focused on addiction, and owned by a company that designs websites and magazines for rehab clinics and halfway houses. In March, the Columbia Journalism Review delved into The Influence’s goals.


Choked By Traffic

“The Ironbound” sounds like a Game of Thrones redoubt, but is actually a neighborhood in Newark and a nexus of transit hubs and factories. According to The Village Voice, around 200 trucks pass through each hour, and diesel emissions have contributed to an astounding one-quarter of children in Newark suffering from asthma.

#facepalm Of the Week

If you enjoyed Eric Cartman doling out justice in the hamlet of South Park (“Respect my authoritah!”), you’ll like the Texas Observer’s profile of Edwards County Sheriff Pamela Elliott. Elliot is a member of the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, which is exactly what it sounds like if it sounds like a group that encourages sheriffs to disobey laws they view as unconstitutional. According to the Observer, that makes it less funny to residents when Elliott mentions a potential list of women who might be okay to shoot.

Tweet of The Week


Additional research by Kate Brown.

Tips are appreciated. The paper kind, or the green paper kind.

ProPublica does not vouch for the accuracy of stories appearing on SRSLY. We select, review and summarize key points from accountability stories that may not have gotten wide exposure. But we are not able to independently vet or vouch for the accuracy of stories produced by others. We will inform readers if we learn that stories have been challenged publicly or corrected.

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