ABC News report that Oakland police tasered a man having an epileptic seizure because he became agitated when restrained. They subsequently prosecuted him for assault and disorderly conduct. You couldn’t make it up if you tried.
From a press release from the Epilepsy Foundation:
The case in Michigan involved Daniel Beloungea, who was taking a daily walk in his neighborhood when he experienced a complex partial seizure, which left him in a state of semi-consciousness. Complex partial seizures are associated with repetitive involuntary movements, sometimes for up to 30 minutes, with post-seizure disorientation. Beloungea needs to walk daily as a form of rehabilitation to help restore functioning in his legs; this functioning was impaired following brain surgery to treat his seizures. A person passing by noticed Mr. Beloungea acting erratically and called police to report his behavior. When officers arrived on the scene, they apparently assumed that his failure to respond to their questions and his erratic involuntary movements amounted to resistance, and failed to recognize the obvious signs of a seizure. Furthermore, they failed to inspect the medical alert bracelet he was wearing, which indicates clearly that he has epilepsy.
According to police reports, when Mr. Beloungea was unresponsive to police direction, the bag he was carrying was kicked by police from his hand, and when he flailed his arms involuntarily, he was tasered, sending 50,000 volts of electricity through his body (risking serious injury or death); hit with a police baton; threatened at gunpoint; and handcuffed behind his back. (The handcuffing itself is dangerous for persons experiencing a seizure, as it can lead to further seizure-related agitation and struggling, possibly causing asphyxiation or even cardiac arrest.) He was then prosecuted for assaulting police officers and disorderly conduct, notwithstanding considerable evidence, including the state’s own mental health evaluation, confirming that his actions were involuntary and solely the product of a seizure.
The video clips are interesting, as they show Beloungea being recorded as part of a clinical EEG investigation for epilepsy.
The videos have recordings of his behaviour and recordings from his brain synchronised together.
The second clip shows what most people might think of as an epileptic seizure – someone who’s obviously not with it, making repetitive movements.
The first clip, also shows a seizure (look for the intense EEG activity), but his movements seem more coordinated and purposeful.
Complex partial seizures are where the person has impaired consciousness (complex), where only a part of the brain is involved (partial) and where neurons are taken over by synchronous waves of activity and can’t continue their normal operation (seizure).
Because of the selective nature of these seizures, they tend only to affect certain brain functions, often leading to actions that are carried out without conscious control.
We know that the more we practice actions the less conscious effort is needed to carry them out, and that we only need to intervene consciously when special care or attention is needed. Driving a car or riding a bike are classic examples.
It is possible that in some people with complex partial seizures, consciousness becomes so disconnected from action that ‘best guess’ automatic actions are carried out but without awareness of the details which might otherwise inhibit the person’s inappropriate responses.
For example, in the first video clip, Beloungea has to be prevented from removing the EEG recording equipment. It may be annoying, but people with awareness will put up with annoyance for the sake of the medical assessment. During a seizure, this ability to inhibit automatic responses can be lost.
There are many reports in the medical literature of people carrying out actions during a seizure that they would normally prevent themselves from doing – such as a vegetarian eating a sausage.
It seems the police weren’t trained to recognise someone having this type of epileptic seizure, which seems a preventable but tragic oversight.
How Beloungea came to be prosecuted for actions which the court accepted were beyond his control seems much more bizarre and worrying.
If you want to learn how to recognise and help someone who is experiencing an epileptic seizure, there’s more information here.