Training Police to Subdue Suspects

Jason Williams, Defensive Tactics Training Coordinator with the Michigan State Police Department training division, explains how police officers are trained to deal with people in a state of excited delirium.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

To hear more about how police are trained to deal with people in extreme agitated states, we're joined by Jason Williams. He's the defensive tactics training coordinator with the Michigan State Police Department.

Thanks for being with us.

Sergeant JASON WILLIAMS (Defensive Tactics Training Coordinator, Michigan State Police Department): Thanks for having me.

BLOCK: And how do you train police there in Michigan to recognize someone who is in this state, which is called excited delirium? What do they look for?

Sgt. WILLIAMS: Well, there's an agitated state, somebody who's extremely combative or violent, psychotic behavior, altered mental status, any kind of bizarre behaviors, profuse sweating, incoherent speech, superhuman strength and endurance. People that are experiencing this syndrome usually like to break glass, whether it's windows, bottles, something to that effect. That's one of the things that we train people to look for.

BLOCK: Well, if officers are responding to someone who does seem to be out of control, what are the first initial techniques that you tell officers they should use when they're trying to respond and calm someone down?

Sgt. WILLIAMS: Well, obviously, our first stage of any use of force is use our voice. It's our first and best tool that we have.

BLOCK: And if voice commands don't work, what then?

Sgt. WILLIAMS: We have what's called a subject-control continuum here in Michigan. For instance, talking to somebody or showing up in uniform is considered officer presence or verbal traction. That's the lowest level of force that a police officer will use.

The next step up is simply using techniques like joint locks or pressure points, or things like that. The next step that they would use if those were ineffective would be physical controls like strikes or takedowns, things like that.

Our next step up would be intermediate controls, impact weapons, batons, using chemical sprays or even Tasers. The final level of response would be a deadly force response.

BLOCK: Is it a common experience that when people are in this extremely agitated state that they're not responding to pain in the way that you'd expect them to?

Sgt. WILLIAMS: That's very typical of somebody experiencing excited delirium. In fact, one of the symptoms is they just don't feel or respond to the pain-compliance techniques that we use.

BLOCK: And what will officers tell you about what it feels like to actually be in a confrontation with somebody who is exhibiting superhuman strength?

Sgt. WILLIAMS: Usually what you hear is, you know, the guy was 5'6" and 120 pounds and, you know, the officers are six-foot and 180, 200 pounds and it's all they can do to control this guy. And they call for back-up again and three or four guys come and it takes six officers to control this one guy who's about 120 pounds.

BLOCK: If you're dealing with someone who's believed to be in this state, would you call, say, an ambulance or medics or people who could actually tranquilize the suspect, lower their heart rate, things like that?

Sgt. WILLIAMS: That's one of the things that we've started to train our troopers for, is to recognize these symptoms, get medical aid in route as quickly as possible, get this person under control so that medical personnel can start to help.

BLOCK: And then would that suspect be taken to prison or to a hospital?

Sgt. WILLIAMS: Ideally, what's going to happen is they're going to get them under control as quickly as possible, get them restrained so that the ambulance people can take care of them, turn them over to the ambulance and get them to a medical facility where they can get the treatment that they need.

BLOCK: Sergeant Williams, we heard in reports from Laura Sullivan that there is a great deal of controversy about excited delirium. Civil rights groups feel that it's basically an excuse to cover up police brutality of misconduct. What's your perspective on that?

Sgt. WILLIAMS: Depending on who you talk to, the National Association of Medical Examiners, they've recognized excited delirium for more than a decade. Some medical studies have been done over in the United Kingdom that clearly show that it does exist. But as far as police officers using this as a cover for justifying excessive force, the last thing that any police officer wants to do is to have somebody physically injured or worse yet even to die while -after they've been taken into custody or during the arrest procedure.

We train our officers to use the minimum amount of force necessary to in effect arrest but to do it safely.

BLOCK: Sergeant Williams, thanks for talking with us.

Sgt. WILLIAMS: Certainly. Thank you.

BLOCK: Jason Williams is defensive tactics training coordinator with the Michigan State Police Department. You can hear the first part of our report on excited delirium at our website, npr.org.

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