US police don't just kill with guns: AP investigation reveals disturbing facts

Dozens of deaths in the U.S. have exposed the risk of sedating people in police custody, according to an AP investigation conducted in cooperation with Frontline PBS and the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism.

by Sededin Dedovic
US police don't just kill with guns: AP investigation reveals disturbing facts
© Scott Olson / Getty Images

Research on the practice of sedating people during their arrest in the USA reveals deep doubts. This strategy, ostensibly designed to reduce violence and save lives, turned out to be the cause of many avoidable deaths. An AP investigation revealed that over the past 15 years, the practice of sedating people detained or decided to be detained by the police has been established almost imperceptibly, with the support of police experts and a questionable, unfounded scientific approach.

Between 2012 and 2021, at least 94 people lost their lives after police officers administered sedatives in an attempt to control them. Shockingly, nearly half of these victims were African-American, according to an AP investigation in collaboration with Frontline PBS and the Howard Center for Investigative Reporting.

A major factor behind this high death rate among blacks is the concept of "excited delirium," which some consider a controversial medical condition. Critics argue that this condition, with its supposed symptoms of "superhuman strength" and high pain tolerance, actually stems from racist stereotypes about blacks, thus calling into question the objectivity and fairness of sedation decisions.

Determining the exact role of sedatives in each of the 94 deaths is a challenge, as many of these incidents involved the use of force against people who were under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Further, research often focuses solely on the actions of police officers and not on the medical personnel who assist them.

It often happened that people were forcibly held on their stomachs, handcuffed, while police officers sat on their backs, which made it even more difficult for them to breathe and move. In such cases, medical staff would administer sedatives under the pretense that it was necessary to restrain the individual, thereby further slowing breathing and increasing the risk of cardiac and respiratory arrest, often with a fatal outcome.

New York Police Department tactical police officers stand guard © Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

It is alarming that those individuals who did not pose a threat to themselves or others were given sedatives, which violated the guidelines of medical practice.

Also, doctors did not always have information about whether people who received sedatives consumed other drugs or alcohol, which can cause serious and unpredictable reactions. An additional problem is the lack of research on the effects of the combination of sedatives with other drugs or alcohol, which makes it even more difficult to assess the risk to patients' lives.

It is also not uncommon for police officers to improperly influence medical personnel to administer sedatives to persons who have been arrested, thereby placing medical professionals in the role of extended police authority, rather than adhering to medical ethical principles and guidelines.

There is evidence that most of the 94 documented deaths were due to the use of sedatives such as midazolam, which is known to increase the risk of respiratory arrest. There have also been recorded cases of the use of other sedatives such as "ketamine", whose health risks later became known, as well as antipsychotics such as "haloperidol" and "ziprasidone", which can cause serious heart problems.

Several incidents, including the killing of George Floyd in 2020, have led to increased pressure on the medical community to rethink the concept of "excited delirium." In response, some medical associations have withdrawn their support for the concept, noting that there is insufficient evidence to justify the use of sedatives.

It is reminiscent of the case of the arrest of African-American Demetrius Jackson (43), who was arrested by the police in the American state of Wisconsin after a report of a break-in in a parking lot. The officers immobilized Jackson with an electric shocker, after which he ran out of air and complained that he could not breathe.

While he was sitting on the ground with handcuffs on his hands, the police officers gave him oxygen through a breathing mask, and when the ambulance arrived, he was injected with a strong sedative, allegedly "to calm down".

In just a few minutes, Jackson's heart stopped and he died after resuscitation and two weeks spent in the hospital.
Jackson's death in 2021 illustrates the often-hidden way in which fatal encounters with American police end — not with an officer's gun, but with the use of a medical syringe, the study said.

Today, most medical associations do not recognize "excited delirium" as an actual pathological condition, citing a lack of scientific evidence to support this classification. This further calls into question the practice of sedation during arrests, calling for stricter guidelines and regulations that should protect the rights and safety of arrested persons.

In light of these findings, the question arises of the need to revise police protocols and medical guidelines to reduce the number of deaths associated with the use of sedation during arrest.