In August 2013 a Metropolitan police officer was found guilty of common assault. He punched a prisoner who had spat in his mouth as he put him in a police van, and remains suspended from duties. He said that he thought that the prisoner was going to spit at him again, and so he struck him ‘in the face area.’ The Court was told that the Officer wiped the spit off his face, opened the van door and "launched" himself at the prisoner, punching him twice. This indicates a degree of premeditation. A colleague stated that he tried to remove the officer from the suspect but was not strong enough, and instead told him that "we don't do that" to which the bespattered officer replied "yeah we do." I know which one I would rather have had in the van...
The chair of the bench declared that she and her fellow magistrates did not accept that the officer believed that he needed to use force to defend himself in the circumstances. He is on bail and may appeal, and of course the spitter may claim damages.
Also in the news has been the incident in which an officer Tasered a blind man from Chorley. This has been investigated by the Independent Police Complaints Commission, after which the Crown Prosecution Service has decided that a prosecution is not appropriate. It would appear that the Police had received reports that a man carrying a samurai sword was roaming the area, and that the officer who Tasered him mistook his white walking stick for the weapon. I haven’t seen the video footage but reckon that on a good day I could tell one from the other. In justifying its decision the CPS noted that anyone committing an assault who may have acted under a mistaken belief as to the facts must be judged on the facts as they believed them to be. They also noted that where the officer is under a mistaken belief as to the facts the question is whether, in the circumstances as he believed them to be, the force was reasonable, and that even if an officer is completely mistaken his actions may not be considered unreasonable. I have read this several times and am still not sure what it means, but it would appear that the Metropolitan Police Officer’s belief that he can punch prisoners who spit in his mouth is mistaken.
How times change. We appear to have moved from a time when police officers could punch more or less who they liked to one where they can’t, even when they have spat in their mouth, but they can electrocute blind people and get away with it. Working out who is doing what and then deciding what to do about it is the essence of police work, and it is a damnably complicated and often irrational process, but this makes no sense at all.
The issue is, ‘How do we do things around here?’ The view of the Officer who was spat into was at marked variance to that of his colleague, who became a witness for his prosecution. On attending my first major disturbance I watched, bemused, as my colleagues detained the winners and gave the losers directions to the nearest Hospital. A few minutes later I found myself in the back of a long wheelbased landrover with a number of prisoners, one of whom has somehow been allocated me, and some grizzled Police veterans. The prisoners were teenagers, the Police veterans were not. Most of them had joined the Service when discharged from the Armed Forces after the Second World War. These were men of such fearsome demeanor that I cannot imagine anyone ever depositing saliva into their mouths, even as an act of foreplay, which I don’t think they engaged in anyway. During their long service and eventful service they had developed their own highly effective if somewhat dubious conflict resolution methodology.
The way things were done around there, then, was that the prisoners sat on the floor of the landrover and the Officers sat on the seats. This was an arrangement which ensured the safety of the officers but was banned a few years later after the contentious death of a prisoner in a Task Force carrier skippered by the legendary Sergeant Peter Cassidy, a good natured and intelligent man who took a firm line on matters of public disorder. I explained the seating arrangements to the youth and then asked him to sit on the floor. He refused. The grizzled veteran sat opposite to me was the fearsome Don Glover, who loved participating in rugby league, drinking and snooker, and behaved much the same in all three. ‘Golly Gosh Ian!’ (or words to this effect) said Don. ‘Punch him!’ The heat of the moment and the cold mists of time have combined to blur my recollection of what happened next but I do remember arriving at the Police station with the prisoner lying on the floor, held securely in place by my boots. This taught me a couple of other ways about the way that things were done around there then. Officers did not hit each other’s prisoners. If they did then they became theirs. Nor did they beat people. They struck them once, hard, and left it at that, unless of course the recipient fought back. Batons, were seldom drawn, but if they were drawn then they were used, rather like a Ghurka’s kukri.
‘The baton’ is a generic term which has encompassed a wide range of devices. In the Liverpool and Bootle Constabulary of the early 1970s officers were issued with splendid carved pieces of lignum vitae, the wood of the National tree of the Bahamas, which bears the National flower of Jamaica. It is famed for its combination of strength, toughness and density The batons were so heavy that they sank in water. Officers were taught to strike at the shoulders of the persons that they were trying to restrain, and that if the recipients moved their heads into the baton it was their own fault. The ratio of blows that struck the head rather than the shoulders was disconcertingly high, in fact I cannot remember a shoulder being hit. This must attributed to either the inaccuracy of the striking officer or the ill advised head movements of the patient, or both. These fearsome weapons were steadily replaced by cheaper and lighter batons, closer in density to balsa wood. Balsa is Spanish for boat, and these new batons floated very well. They were otherwise of no use whatsoever. The tactic of throwing batons at suspects from a safe distance seems to have fallen out of use sometime in the late 1970s, partly because it was illegal, partly that they were now so light that they wouldn’t hurt anyone, mainly because they seldom struck their target and tended to bounce out of sight. This led Officers to steal batons from their colleagues, or wander their beat without them, rather than fill out reams of paperwork with false accounts as to how the projectile had been lost. The paperwork to be completed after a baton had been used was even more complex than that which was completed after one had been lost. As a consequence the use of batons was very rare, and seldom disclosed. In fairness to the Police Service after the riots of 1981 long handled batons made of some form of heavy plastic were eventually issued, and did the job quite nicely.
By the early 1990s someone had decided, through some mysterious and misguided process, that batons needed handles. This was like saying that a horse needed a hump. A constable under my nominal command,. Whom I will not name, but who was an excellent goalkeeper for a blonde was sent on a two week course to learn how to use these new fangled contraptions and then teach others how to use them. On his return he explained the wide, simple and effective variety of holds and restraints that he could now apply in violent situations. He strode onto the beat with his baton clasped to his hip by a particularly elaborate Velcro strapping and was promptly and thoroughly beaten up outside a pub. When he eventually returned to duty I asked him in as caring a manner as I could muster why he had not trounced his assailants with his newly acquired side handled baton. He replied ‘I didn’t want to hurt them.’ Despite this clearly unsuccessful trial the batons were adopted and remain in use. Trials of new things in the Police are doomed to succeed. A baton used in combat, with or without a handle is easy to spot, and easy to avoid or block. On the rare occasions that a blow from a baton is delivered accurately and with force it can prove fatal, which is seldom the intention of the Officer delivering the strike. If it is used by a weakling with a poor technique against an enraged and adrenalized opponent it can have startlingly little effect. (Believe me, I know.) Various types of baton have been un use for a long time, and have been used very many times, but they have caused few fatalities. This means that they are wielded very well. Or very badly.
This brings us on to Tasers. If it is of any solace the English Police are not alone in dubious Tasering. In 1997 a member of the audience at the University of Florida campus asked a presidential candidate difficult questions and then refused to hand over the microphone. Campus police officers dragged him to the back of a lecture hall and stunned him with a Taser. This seems disproportionate and ill considered. They could surely have given the candidate a chance to answer, and then switched the microphone off? So, how dangerous are Tasers? In the hierarchy of violent accessories they lie somewhere between the baton and the plastic bullet, alongside CS Gas. Rubber and then plastic bullets were widely used by the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) and the Military during the troubles in Northern Ireland. They were meant to fired into the ground to reduce their velocity, but were soon found to be potentially lethal when they struck at close range and above the waist. Between 1973 to 1981an astonishing125,000 rounds, were fired, over 40 a day, leading to at least fourteen fatalities. Their use has been considered in other parts of the United Kingdom, but they have yet to be deployed.
During the riots of 1981 the desperate Merseyside Police used CS gas canisters for the only time in the history of the English police. The canisters soon ran out, having had little effect on the rioters as the wind was blowing towards the Police lines. Next ‘Ferret’ gas pellets, which were supposed to be fired into rooms rather than crowds, were discharged. I was present when one struck a male who later claimed that he was an innocent bystander. He looked to me like a rioter carrying a petrol bomb. He was very badly injured, arrested, found not guilty after a retrial, compensated and died. The officer who fired the pellet was interviewed under caution and explained that he had aimed at an adjacent traffic junction box so that the pellet would shatter and its contents would be dispersed, but he had missed, a bit like aiming a baton blow at assailant’s shoulders and inadvertently striking him on the head.
Hand held CS gas sprays were subsequently issued to officers, but they seem not to have caught on, perhaps because they were not always immediately effective and were very likely to harm both Police Officers and passers by. This generated complaints and claims for compensation, although it is not clear how accurately they were recorded. In one incident on the Wirral a fight broke out between rival gangs of bouncers on a coach trip. The Officers responding to the call took a look at what was going on and rather than joining in they took the decision to spray inside the coach and then shut the doors. At one level this worked remarkably well, in that the fighting stopped and the bouncers went to Casualty quietly. However when they had recovered they commissioned bitter letters of complaint, written on behalf of the bouncers by Solicitors, who were thought to be more literate. The Divisional Commander, Paul Forrester, led from the front and did not always pay attention to ACPO policy. He was already under scrutiny about the robust actions of his officers, and, on realising that what had occurred may be considered excessive he recorded all the complaints as one incident, on the grounds that there had only been one coach involved. All performance regimes are at risk of manipulation...
In recent years rubber bullets, gas canisters and sprays seem to have been overtaken by the steady increase of the use of Tasers. The Home Office tell us that Police use in England and Wales more than doubled between 2009 and 2011, from 3,328 to 7,877, although they were only readied or pointed for three quarters of the time. Incidents involving Tasers have become so prevalent that some solicitors are specializing in them, never a good sign.
These increases have become of grave concern to Amnesty International, whose UK director Kate Allen is worried about ‘every bobby on the beat having a Taser on their belt’. Her distress was anticipated by Bernard Hogan Howe, Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police as early as 2011. He suggested that rather than giving Tasers to officers who "have enough on their belts" that every police car in London could be fitted with one. I do not know that this policy has been implemented but anything that reduces the use of Velcro is admirable.
Tasers are used at a closer distance than rubber bullets, and are less likely to distress their owners or innocent bystanders than pepper sprays. Producing them works most of the time, they are a powerful deterrent. When fatalities occur there are normally contributory factors, ill health, drugs, some form of congenital defect or multiple discharges. They have however proved fatal in cases when there has been no evidence of either an underlying medical condition or the use of drugs.
Amnesty USA claim that Tasers have killed at least 500 people there since 2001. The US Justice Department reckon on a figure of 184 since 1986. This is a lesser number over a longer time, but it is still a lot. The UK has had only three Taser-related deaths since they were brought into widespread use in 2005. In one of these a bodybuilder was allegedly shocked at least three times. A Channel Four investigation has claimed that UK police officers are using their new kit in a wider range of situations, including the eviction of protesters and the quelling of rioters. It is alleged that at least 158 people have been subjected to multiple-Tasering in the UK, despite warnings about the dangers of the practice. Even when multiple Tasering is used it doesn’t always work. In an incident in London in 2012 a man brandishing a knife was Tasered up to four times. When this failed to incapacitate him he was shot at five times, and hit by three bullets. This raises one, or perhaps two issues. The first one is, what do you do if one Tasering doesn’t work? If the answer is to shoot the assailant then it raises a second issue, that of bullets that miss. In one year in the 1960s the American Police shot more passers by than offenders, a statistic so shocking that they appear to have stopped recording it.
So, Tasers generally enable Police Officers to restrain dangerous opponents without hurting them too much, or hurting anyone else at all, whilst avoiding the protracted investigations and possible convictions that accompany the punching of spitters and the shooting of passers by. Like all preventative measures the damage that they do is evident whilst the damage that they have prevented remains unknown. On balance they seem useful when used properly, dangerous when not.
The use of all of these devices takes place in conflict situations where calm calculation is threatened by a reversion to primitive instinctive choices. These have been categorised as ‘Fight, flight, friend, freeze and flop.’ The decision to fight is best taken early. As my grandfather used to say, ‘I will fight any man in the World, just let me hit him first.’ However whomsoever lands the first blow will later have to convince their fellows and the magistrates, in the cold light of hindsight, that their actions were essential to self preservation. This is often a difficult task. Flight involves putting space between oneself and a dangerous situation, and can involve sprinting, or backing away, or hiding, or any combination of the three. Flight is well advised upon hearing a fire alarm, yet to flee from a hungry tiger is inadvisable, unless of course you are with someone who runs slower than you do and appears edible. Flight was not, until 1981, the way the police did things around anywhere, but the rioters of that year witnessed plenty of ill trained and equipped Police Officers backing off, beating hasty retreats and hiding behind shields. Things have never been the same since. ‘Friend’ encompasses attempts to use social engagement skills to negotiate, plead or bribe oneself out of danger, and explains why frightened people smile at those who appear likely to do them great harm. When the brain decides that the friend, fight or flight responses are not likely to be successful it will sometimes elicit a ‘freeze’ response, which persuades the aggressor that they have achieved submission. ‘Freezing’ seldom happens, and when it does it is often taken for consent, especially by sex offenders. It is seldom practised in the Police, although there have always been Officers who didn’t move much.
Flop is an even rarer response, only triggered when the freeze mechanism fails. In this mode the body shifts from the tension associated with ‘freeze’ to one of extreme relaxation, which makes it easier to survive the psychological and physical impact of an attack. The flop response appears even more submissive than the freeze, and I am proud to say that I cannot recall Police officers trying this one either, excluding sleeping on Nights.
No matter which response ‘kicks in’ most devices are relatively safe when they are used properly. Baton blows to the head, rubber bullets to the torso, gas sprays in enclosed areas and the repeated use of Tasers just about anywhere are very dangerous forms of restraint, but they are excluded from the manuals. Training is important, and guidelines are essential. The misuse of force does not take place in the safe, controlled environments of the classroom, nor the gym, nor the courtroom. As the two incidents outlined at the start of this article illustrate mental and physical actions and reactions can, in the heat and confusion of conflict, be both uncontrolled and irrational. They are not thought out and measured, they are instinctive and can be brutal.
Officers in dangerous situations deserve the thanks and the sympathy of both the public and the judiciary. They enter into such situations knowing that they will not always be forthcoming.
They have to.
It goes with the cloth.
Retired ACC Merseyside Police