What does it mean to assault a Police Officer in the execution of his duty?

According to up to date Home Office statistics, there are approximately 23,000 assaults against Police Officers in the course of their duty every year. There are 124,000 Police Officers in England and Wales, but nevertheless that first figure might appear shockingly high.

But what does it mean to assault a Police Officer whilst on duty? And can you claim compensation if in fact you have been wrongfully arrested for assaulting an Officer.

By virtue of s89(1) of the Police Act 1996, a person commits an offence where he assaults a Police Officer in the execution of his duty.

Assault’  is not defined  in the Act and so the Common Law definition applies; an intentional or reckless application of force (a punch, kick or even merest unwanted touching) or the fear of immediate unlawful violence to the person (even if that does not in fact then occur).   So the first thing to point out is that the majority of arrests and prosecutions for this offence are not brought in respect of violent, unprovoked attacks on Police Officers but rather in respect of ‘technical’ assaults, for example placing a hand on the Officer or lightly pushing the Officer away.   It is imperative therefore to put these statistics in context.

Be that as it may, whether the officer at the material time was acting in the execution of his duty is often the more controversial issue to resolve.  Various actions may take an officer outside the execution of his duty such as carrying out a wrongful arrest or being unlawfully on premises and therefore a trespasser.

It is a cardinal principle of the common law that a Police Officer has no power to take hold of or detain a person in the absence of lawful authority (this would, of course, constitute an assault upon that person) and that a person who is unlawfully detained is entitled to resist such unlawful act provided he uses no more than reasonable force to do so.

I recently concluded a claim for Lee Fisher of Hampshire wherein the Court had to determine whether his arrest was lawful and therefore whether the officer was acting in the execution of her duty. (Lee and his wife, Carley, have kindly agreed to me using their details.)

At all material times, Mr. Fisher and Carley were the owners of a small food service business which ran a catering van which ordinarily parked up for business in the Southampton Market Precinct.

On the afternoon of the 7 June 2014, Mr. Fisher was at the van helping out, together with his wife.

At approximately 3:30pm, Police Constable S and Special Constables S and W arrived at the van.

PC S introduced herself and the two Special Constables. She explained that she had attended so as to issue a harassment warning to Mrs Fisher in respect of comments made on a local news website regarding a local business man, Mr. A.

Mr. Fisher and his wife were at that time embroiled in an ongoing business dispute with Mr. A.

Both Mr. and Mrs. Fisher took exception to the issue of the harassment warning, advising the officers that the Police were being manipulated by Mr. A in an attempt to assist him in the ongoing business dispute and that involvement of the Police was  a waste of valuable public resources.

Mr. Fisher suggested that they all go and speak to Mr. A to resolve issues.

PC S warned  Mr. Fisher that he would be arrested should he approach Mr. A or enter his place of business which was located on the High Street.  Mr. Fisher replied that neither PC S nor any other Police Officer could stop him from going to the High Street.

Before the arrival of the officers, Mr. Fisher had intended to attend the local Argos Store with a view to  purchasing a fan.  The Argos Store was located within a short distance of Mr. A’s business premises on the High Street.

In the circumstances, Mr. Fisher left the van and proceeded towards the Argos Store.  En route, he entered BHS so as to use the toilets.

Mr. Fisher then entered the Argos store and spent three or four minutes in the store browsing before collecting a catalogue and then leaving the store in the opposite direction to Mr. A’s business premises and intending to return to the van.

Having left the store, Mr. Fisher saw PC S, SC B and SC W outside.

PC S called Mr. Fisher over.  He approached as requested.  At the time, he was carrying an Argos catalogue in his right hand and a drink carton in his left hand.

PC S advised Mr. Fisher he was under arrest for breach of the peace, notwithstanding the fact that he was walking in the opposite direction to where Mr A’s business premises were located.

PC S directed SC W to ‘handcuff him’.  SC W then grabbed Mr. Fisher’s left wrist and applied a handcuff to the wrist.  SC W then sought to force Mr. Fisher’s left arm behind his back whilst PC S took hold of Mr. Fisher’s right wrist.

My client believed his arrest to be unlawful and resisted the officers’ efforts to handcuff him by holding on to PC S’s right hand.  Mr. Fisher questioned the officers as to how he had allegedly breached the peace.   PC S advised that Mr. Fisher had been warned not to go to Mr. A’s business premises.

At this point, PC S directed her colleagues to take Mr. Fisher to the ground. The Claimant shouted words like “Don’t throw me to the floor, I’ve just had knee surgery” and resisted.  He was warned that he would be CS gassed. Mr. Fisher continued to protest his innocence and struggle.

SC B then performed a leg sweep manoeuvre taking Mr. Fisher down so that he fell forwards on to his front and landed heavily on both knees causing Mr. Fisher immediate pain and discomfort.

Mr. Fisher was then pinned to the ground with SC B kneeling on the back of Mr. Fisher’s  lower legs.  He was then handcuffed to the rear. Mr. Fisher immediately complained that the handcuffs were too tight and requested that they be loosened.  This request was initially refused.

Much to Mr. Fisher’s embarrassment, the incident took place in a busy shopping area in front of numerous passers-by, some of whom were taking photographs and videos on their mobile phones, presumably believing that they were witnessing the arrest of a violent and dangerous offender. 

Having been detained, Mr. Fisher  was advised that he was now also under arrest for assaulting PC S.  Other officers arrived and my client was escorted into a police van and driven to Southampton Custody Suite.

In the holding room of the Police Station, Mr Fisher was re-handcuffed from rear to front stack position.  By reason of the handcuffs, Mr. Fisher was at this time experiencing excruciating pain in both thumbs, wrists, hands and arms.

Mr. Fisher was taken before the Custody Sergeant where he was advised that he was under arrest for breaching the peace and assaulting PC S.

The circumstances of arrest as recorded in the Custody Record were said to be as follows;

Police giving wife harassment warning.  Male became angry and aggressive and said he is going to go down there.  Police warned that if he went down there he could be arrested for harassment or breach of peace. He said “I’m going to go down there and stand outside, that’s not harassment – Police said “If you go down there I will arrest you in order to prevent a Breach of the Peace”.  Male walked off saying he was going down there.  Police followed male walking in and out of shops and male was next to aggrieved’s address.  Male was arrested to prevent a Breach of the Peace.  During arrest male assaulted Police Officer by gripping and bending wrists back and trying to head butt same officer.

At approximately 23:55, the Claimant was interviewed under caution in the presence of his Solicitor.  In interview, he gave a full and detailed account and denied the offence. By approximately 1.00 on 8 June 2014 the interview had concluded. 

At 01.24, a post interview update was carried out by the investigating officer who endorsed the custody record as follows; 

“There is a statement of complaint from the victim [Police Constable S]. There are statements from the two witnessing Special Constables.  There is apparently no visible injury to the victim [PC S]. 

The DP has been interviewed.  He has given an account.  He denies the offence but states that he took hold of the officer’s hand to prevent himself being handcuffed as he didn’t believe that he had done anything wrong.  He denied trying to headbutt the officer. 

Two other officers, PC B and PC K, attended to assist after the DP has been arrested and were present when the DP tried to headbutt the officer.  Neither officer has yet made a statement. Both officers are on duty from 08.00 hours in the morning, 08/06/2014, and will be requested to make a statement. 

The area of the incident is covered by City CCTV.  However, they will not download the CCTV this evening.  CCTV will be available to review in the morning, 08/06/2014. 

PC S to be contacted in the morning to establish if any visible injury has developed. 

The DP admits in interview to taking hold of the officer in order to prevent himself being handcuffed, although he denies committing any offence in doing so.  The further enquiries documented above may be completed within the constraints of the Pace clock and would allow for a disposal decision to be reached. 

The DP will remain in custody whilst these enquiries are completed”. 

Later that morning, custody staff failed to give Mr. Fisher any breakfast notwithstanding an inaccurate entry on the Custody Record suggesting that at 07:14 Mr. Fisher was offered and accepted a hot meal.  When challenged, custody staff suggested that Mr. Fisher had in fact had his breakfast which he disputed.  Subsequently, Mr. Fisher was told “You’ve assaulted a Police Officer, that’s what you get”.

At 11:14, Mr. Fisher’s Solicitor rang for an update. The Custody Record states;

“The case is proceading (sic) but I do not have access to case/occurrence.  Solicitor advised – he made representations about the delay as he belienved (sic) that all we were waiting for was CCTV.  Sgt to be informed when she is free”.

At 12:00, a further update is recorded specifically;

“I have spoken to CIT in relation to the DP.  I have also reviewed the statements.  In short Fisher was detained for a BOP where he then resisted arrest and in doing so has injured the arresting PC.  Mr Fisher has admitted  to resisting arrest but states  that he was in disagreement with the arresting officer.  We have obtained statements from the arresting officer and also 2 other officers that were at the scene”.

At approximately 12.11, Mr. Fisher was charged with assaulting PC S whilst in the execution of her duty and released at approximately 12.14 on police bail to attend Court having been detained for over 20 hours in custody.

Mr. Fisher subsequently attended Court and pleaded not guilty.  The prosecution against him was adjourned for summary trial. The first trial had to be adjourned by reason of court administrative errors and then again because of  PC S’s unavailability.  The trial eventually took place 10 months later.   Following trial, Mr. Fisher was found not guilty.

The District Judge conducting the trial stated quite correctly that the primary issue to be determined was whether Mr. Fisher’s arrest for Breach of the Peace was justified.

The District Judge found that Mr Fisher was committing no crime by visiting the High Street and specifically was not committing any breach of the peace when the officers decided to arrest him.

Given that Mr. Fisher’s arrest for Breach of the Peace was unlawful, his arrest for assaulting PC S was also unlawful in that PC S was not acting in the execution of her duty.

Following an internet search Mr. Fisher contacted me.  He provided a full account and some prosecution papers.  I was satisfied that in light of the Court’s findings at the Magistrates’ Court trial, Mr. Fisher had a strong claim against Hampshire Constabulary for unlawful arrest, false imprisonment and assault and battery.

By reason of the incident, Mr. Fisher suffered both physical and psychological injuries.  I commissioned reports from both a GP expert and Psychiatrist.

Following examination, the GP expert found that Mr. Fisher

“suffered contusion injuries and neuropraxia to the superficial radial nerve at the dorsum of the wrist and that he made a full recovery within 6 months and that he also “suffered contusion injuries to the knees and calves.  Mr Fisher had suffered pre-existing chronic knee pain and the index incident resulted in aggravation of pain for the period of 6 months after the index incident”.

The psychiatrist concluded that

“Following the index events, Mr. Fisher suffered from an Adjustment Disorder (which was) likely to have lasted around 12 months and so having lasted beyond a 6 month period met the diagnostic criteria for Prolonged Depressive Reaction”.

Notwithstanding my confident assessment, Hampshire Constabulary failed to admit liability and it was necessary to issue court proceedings.  As is often the case, the act of instituting Court proceedings concentrates the mind and the Defendant responded  in a more positive manner. After a flurry of offers, I am pleased to confirm that Mr. Fisher’s claim settled for £20,000 plus his full legal costs.

As this case illustrates it is certainly not the case that all of those 23,000 recorded assaults upon Police Officers in the line of duty by the Home Office are in fact serious or substantiated.  The present case is an example, where the officer in question may have mistakenly believed she was acting in the execution of her duty, when in fact she was not, and Mr Fisher lawfully resisted her in an attempt to protect himself from a wrongful arrest.

Another feature of cases involving allegations of assault upon Police Constables is that it is often – as we saw here –  the suspect for the offence who has been left with serious injury and the alleged victim  (the Police Officer) who shows little or no discernible injury.

Lies, damned lies and statistics as they say?

Author: iaingould

Actions against the police solicitor (lawyer) and blogger.