Take Another Look: Police Response to Seizures and Epilepsy
About the Curriculum
The Foundation is in the process of developing an updated training curriculum for police and other first responders on seizure recognition and management.
For information on obtaining the current Foundation training curriculum and video, call 1-800-332-1000. First responder agencies are also encouraged to contact the Foundation affiliate serving their community to request that the agency provide training.
On any given shift, law enforcement officers may encounter persons exhibiting confused behavior, an inability to communicate, or a variety of behaviors inappropriate to time and place. There may be many causes of such behavior – some illegal and some medical. In some cases these episodes will be the result of seizures. Seizures are episodes of altered brain awareness or movement caused by temporary, abnormal electrical discharges in the brain. Seizures may occur because a person has epilepsy, diabetes or as a consequence of drug use or some other medical problem.
Whatever the cause of the seizure, the event itself is a disabling condition and requires a police response that recognizes the involuntary nature of the episode, and the inability of the individual involved to make conscious decisions or respond to directions from a law enforcement officer.
Many of the problems that crop up when law enforcement responds to a seizure are due to the officer’s unfamiliarity with the real nature of these episodes. Police may interpret dazed behavior, inability to obey directives, and a combative response to restraint as conscious actions. Police are likely to react with force and may try to arrest the person having the seizure. Such response is humiliating to the person involved, and may cause injury and lawsuits. In a few instances, failure to recognize seizures in people who are in custody has had a fatal outcome. With the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, seizure-related arrests may constitute denial of rights and discrimination on the bases of disability.
The key to a more appropriate law enforcement response to the nearly three million Americans who have epilepsy is training: training in how to recognize seizures, training in the correct response to seizures in the community, and training in the unique needs of people with epilepsy who are taken into custody for any reason.
The need for effective and safe law enforcement practices to handle persons experiencing Seizures has become apparent in recent years. Although most people with epilepsy live normal lives as productive members of society, a percentage of people have epilepsy in addition to other problems. Seizures are common among homeless people and those who use certain illegal drugs. While treatment with seizure-preventing medicines is permitting more and more people with epilepsy to live and work in the community, break through seizures still occur, and are most likely in adults whose seizures that the form of confused and dazed behavior.
Law enforcement officers are likely to encounter people with epilepsy in a number of different settings – during a seizure as the result of a call for emergency aid; at the onset of a seizure if the stress associated with police questioning or being taken into custody on an unrelated charge triggers a seizure in a person with epilepsy; when a person is in a confused state following a seizure (the actual episode will have passed but the brain will not have recovered fully from the electrical onslaught that caused it); or as the result of a call from someone who has interpreted seizure-produced behavior as criminal or threatening.
This is not to suggest that every episode of confusion or illegal activity is seizure-related. That would be both incorrect and unrealistic. Law enforcement officials should be aware of the possibility that seizures are involved in such episodes. They should know how to recognize seizure symptoms and how to handle them appropriately when they occur.
This material was developed in by the Police Executive Research Forum and the Epilepsy Foundation.