Electric Shock Therapy? The use of tasers on the mentally unwell

This is a guest post by my colleague John Hagan, solicitor.

As our new Prime Minister Mr Johnson continues to struggle amidst the spider’s web of ‘Brexit’, I have noted how his Government is striving to establish a firm footing on the more straightforward domestic political landscape by pitching itself, after years of Conservative led underinvestment in the Police, as Britain’s ‘Pro-Police Party’.

I am sure we can all recall Mr Johnson’s recent speech at a Police Training Centre in Wakefield, in the aftermath of which he was heavily criticized for appearing to use Police Officers as background ‘props’ to a nakedly political speech in which he lashed out at his enemies and made bizarre comments about dying in a ditch.

This however, is one of the frontispieces of the new Conservative policy; to win back voters by disavowing the politics of ‘austerity’ and replacing the tens of thousands of Officers who were let go under the Cameron and May Governments.

The other frontispiece of that policy it would seem, as recently reported in the Guardian, will be an outlay of £10 million to arm up to 10,000 more Police Officers with the electric ‘Stun’ guns known as Tasers.

Although this announcement was applauded by the Police Federation, Senior Officers represented by the National Police Chief’s Council (NPCC) have sounded strong notes of caution.

An NPCC source quoted by the Guardian made the following comments:-

It damages policing by consent.  It is not a safe option, it is a less lethal weapon and is still classed as a firearm. Most Chiefs don’t want every Officer to have one.  It should be done after an assessment of risk.  We can think of better things to spend £10 million on.  We don’t welcome it.

Whilst Home Secretary Priti Patel plays on the highly emotive issue of Police Officers being seriously injured in the line of duty, to justify what she obviously hopes will be a vote winning image of a ‘dramatic’ increase in the number of taser wielding Officers,  I believe she should be less interested in sound bites and perhaps more interested in listening to what the most Senior and experienced Officers appear to actually be telling her.

Although fears of fatalities as a result of taser use are in my view overblown, there is no doubt that it is a weapon of extreme violence, designed to electrocute its victim into submission and is far, far above being merely akin to “Just putting your hands on someone…you can have a laugh about it afterwards” as one Taser- happy Officer memorably said to his Professional Standards Department in a case I was involved in some years ago.

It is also of grave concern that tasers are undoubtedly used disproportionality against non-white people and people with mental health issues.

I note that one Chief Constable, at least, appears to have expressed concern to the Guardian about officers drawing their tasers immediately when dealing with situations when the weapons were not required, thereby reducing the chances of a peaceful resolution and instead escalating the situation and the risk of harm to both Officers and the person they are confronting – who, let us not forget – could well be an entirely innocent individual or a very vulnerable person with a mental illness or disability.

That concept of ‘escalation’, and of changing the way that Officers police the streets of Britain, by moving closer to an American model of Officers approaching every situation from a traffic stop upwards, with a hand on their holster, is also a major concern.

Really dangerous criminals, may feel that they are in an “arm’s race” with the Police, and knowing that more Officers have got tasers, equip themselves with even more lethal firearms.

Fortunately of course, those sort of individuals are relatively few and far between.  The number of homicides (murder and manslaughter) occurring each year in our Country, with its population of almost 70,000,000 individuals is rarely higher than 700. This is thankfully not at all comparable to the number of murders in the US, where firearm wielding cops are ubiquitous, and which in 2017 exceeded 17,000 according to FBI figures.

The real risk posed by increased taser use by the Police, in my opinion, is not fatal violence but an increase in incidents of non- fatal but nevertheless very serious assaults which risk inflicting long term physical and mental damage on the health of individuals in situations which could very possibly have been resolved peacefully, had Officers, who in my opinion are sometimes demonstrably lacking the appropriate training and experience, not escalated the situation by going straight for their taser guns.

I think a perfect example of this, is the recent case of one of my clients, who I will identify by the pseudonym of Howard.

This case is a practical example of some of those very concerns that were being expressed to the Guardian by members of the NPCC, in terms of Officers pulling out their tasers far before other non- or less- violent attempts to resolve the situation had been exhausted, and also about the disproportionate use of tasers upon individuals with mental health problems.

Experience has taught me that a lot of Officers on receiving information that an individual with whom they have to deal has mental health problems, automatically seem to go into some kind of panic mode and think that the individual they are confronting is a Hannibal Lecter- type psychopath, instead of seeing them as ordinary individuals, suffering from an illness, or just at a low point in their lives, who need to be met with reason and compassion, not anger and electrocution.

My client Howard, a man of good character, was one such individual going through a low point in his life in December 2018 when he sent a text message to his mother which could be interpreted as an indication that he was going to commit suicide by taking an overdose of pills.

Howard fully accepts that he sent this message in a moment of crisis when he was feeling extremely depressed, but without any real intention of killing himself.

Some time later on the same day, Howard set off to drive to his father’s house to talk about his problems.  En route he stopped off at a Service Station.

Parking his car on the forecourt of the petrol station, Howard went into the shop to purchase a sandwich.  His behaviour at this point (captured on CCTV camera) was entirely normal.

Unbeknownst to Howard, his mother had on receipt of his earlier text message, reported concerns about him to the Police to the effect that he was classed as a ‘high risk’ missing person because of the ‘suicidal message’ that he had sent to his mother and because she had subsequently been unable to get in contact with him.

There was no suggestion in the report made to the Police that Howard was a danger to anyone other than himself, and once his whereabouts had been established, and he was no longer a missing person, it is my view Howard should have been allowed to go about his business as he intended that day.

That is unfortunately not what unfolded when 2 Police Officers who I will identify as PC Oscar and PC George arrived at the Service Station, having been alerted to the presence of Howard’s motor car there by ANPR (Automatic Number Plate Recognition) cameras.

PC Oscar approached Howard inside the shop, and enquired as to how he was, to which Howard, not aware that the Police were looking for him, and somewhat confused by the Officer’s questioning, replied that he was “Okay”.

The Officer informed Howard that he was not under arrest, but the Officer would like to talk to him further, although he did not provide any details about what was to be discussed.

Still confused as to the Officer’s purpose, Howard replied that if he was not under arrest he didn’t feel he had any duty to speak to the Officer and wanted to leave in order to go about his business.

Howard then walked out of the shop intending to return to his car and resume his journey to his father’s house.

At this point PC Oscar had not explained to Howard that there were any concerns about his mental health, or that the Officers wanted him to accompany them to a Mental Health Hospital for assessment, which was in fact their intention.

Clearly, it was not possible for Howard to cooperate with the Officers when he was not being told what they wanted.

Unfortunately, rather than attempting to explain why he wanted Howard to talk to him, PC Oscar now followed him out of the shop and attempted to grab him from behind without warning.

Howard, understandably alarmed, backed away from PC Oscar’s assault, and now became aware of PC George, who had been outside the shop, approaching him with a raised taser gun trained upon Howard.

All of these events were captured on the CCTV cameras at the Service Station, and to my mind it is quite shocking that PC George’s first response on seeing Howard was to immediately point a weapon at him.  I think this is exactly the sort of unnecessary escalation of a situation which Senior Officers in the NPCC are concerned about.

Let us not forget that Howard was not wanted on suspicion of any criminal offence, and nor was there any suggestion that he was ‘dangerous’.

The Officers’ job was to check on Howard’s welfare, but rather than explaining why they wanted to speak to him, instead PC Oscar attempted to grab hold of Howard from behind and then PC George then ‘red dotted’ Howard with a taser gun.

In response to this totally unnecessary and bewildering aggression, Howard then adopted a defensive stance with his arms raised to try to shield himself.  He appealed to PC George to lower the taser gun, but the Officer refused to do so.

Howard then began to back away but was pursued by PC George and when Howard had to stop because he could go no further (his retreat was blocked by a wall) PC George then tasered him.

To the Officer’s evident alarm however, the tasering did not work.   Howard was able to swipe away the wires attached to the taser barbs and thereby avoided the full force of the electric shock which PC George was attempting to administer to him.

Howard now attempted to escape from the two Officers, but they closed in around him and beat him into submission on the ground with a combination of blows from their batons, PAVA anti- personnel spray and further use of taser, including the technique known as ‘dry stunning’ where the taser is pressed directly against a person’s skin and then discharged (in this case, directly into Howard’s neck).

As the Officers, neither of whom were injured themselves, overpowered Howard and forced him to the ground, one of them shouted at Howard “We’re here to help you”.

After Howard was left incapacitated on the ground, having been repeatedly tasered and beaten, the Officers then administered further ‘help’ to him by tightly handcuffing his hands behind his back.

Only now did one of the Officers offer some sort of belated explanation that they were detaining Howard under Section 136 of the Mental Health Act.

Howard was crying in pain and felt close to blacking out.

Other Police Officers now arrived at the scene and Howard was escorted to a Police van, locked in the cage section at the back of the van and taken to hospital.

It had apparently been the initial intention of the Officers to get Howard to go to a Mental Health Hospital for an assessment of his supposedly suicidal frame of mind (although of course, they had not even attempted to explain this to him before ‘jumping’ him).

Now however, because of the multiple injuries he had sustained at the hands of PCs Oscar and George, it was deemed necessary for Howard not to be taken to a Mental Health Hospital, but first of all to A&E for immediate treatment.

Howard was led into the local A&E Department, still in handcuffs. He felt ashamed and humiliated, being in effect paraded as a prisoner.  Howard knew that everyone who looked at him would assume he had committed some kind of serious criminal offence.  Is this how the Police should be helping a non- violent man suffering from depression?

After undergoing x-rays (which revealed that the Officers had fractured Howard’s left hand) Howard was returned to the Police van (thankfully this time not in handcuffs) and taken to a local Mental Health Hospital, where following an assessment he was immediately released, the Staff there having no concerns as to his mental state.

It now appears very likely however that Howard has suffered psychiatric injuries as a result of what PCs Oscar and George did to him, on top of his multiple physical injuries.

All of this arose as a result of what was in my view, a catastrophic error of judgement on the part of PC George.  The tactic the Officers should have been deploying in this situation was effective explanation and communication.   It is likely that if they had done so, violence could have been avoided completely.  However, PC George clearly panicked and because he had a taser available then escalated the situation into one in which the Officers were going to end up hospitalising the man whose welfare they had been sent to ensure.

I am currently advising Howard in relation to pursuing a civil claim against the Police.

Sadly, I think that incidents like this, involving unnecessary taser use, the enflaming of otherwise peaceful situations and serious injury being inflicted to a person believed to be mentally unwell (and who was not a criminal suspect at all) are only likely to increase when Government efforts to rush more Police Officers onto our streets, coincide with an initiative whose primary function appears to be to win the Conservative Party more votes, and put thousands of taser guns into the hands of those inexperienced new Officers.

The final comment I want to pass in regards to this case at the present time, is in relation to the complaint which Howard has already pursued with the Police Force’s Professional Standards Department.

The outcome of that complaint was a ‘whitewash’ which purported to completely exonerate PCs Oscar and George from any wrongdoing and instead to turn all the blame upon Howard.

I was particularly disappointed to read a comment in the Report from the Investigating Officer stating that Howard “needs to take responsibility for his actions” inferring that because he had gone ‘missing’ and had sent a ‘suicidal’ message to his mother, he was responsible for everything that then unfolded.

Clearly that is not the case, and even more so when you consider that Howard was not just an innocent individual but an individual whom the Officers believed to be mentally unwell; the very definition that would justify the Officers detaining Howard so as to present him for assessment at a Mental Health Hospital, would mean that he was not of sound mind and therefore couldn’t be held to account for his actions.

It is strange indeed, that the PSD should seek to defend their Officers from Howard’s (in my view valid) complaint on the basis that he was at the same time incapable of making decisions for himself, and also morally responsible for those decisions.

Clearly that does not add up, and I can only again express my disappointment that the Police did not take the opportunity of Howard’s legitimate complaint to ask serious questions about the deployment and use of taser weapons by their Officers on this occasion and to take the opportunity to give PC George, in particular, appropriate advice and training to try to avoid this sort of situation occurring again.

Instead, PSD appear to have given PC George and his colleague a pat on the back, and rather than learning appropriate lessons from this event, are instead exposing other vulnerable individuals, who may come into the path of taser- wielding Officers with jumpy trigger fingers, to risk of even more serious injury, both physical and mental.

Author: iaingould

Actions against the police solicitor (lawyer) and blogger.