Over recent weeks, the public have been witness, thanks to the close attention being paid by the media to cases involving unlawful stop/ searches upon black people, to numerous incidents of what I see on a very regular basis in my daily work: the ‘automatic’, almost ‘default’ handcuffing of suspects by Police Officers.
These include such incidents as –
· Ryan Colaco, on his way home from a Channel 4 interview about Police racism, having his car window smashed by Officers of the Met Police, who then handcuffed him whilst pursuing a phantom smell of cannabis.
· Athlete Bianca Williams, apologised to by the Met after Officers forced her and her partner, fellow international athlete Ricardo dos Santos out of their car in Maida Vale, handcuffing both of them in front of their baby son.
Whilst acknowledging that handcuffing people should not be a ‘default’ action, Met Police Commissioner Cressida Dick, addressing the Home Affairs select committee this week, asserted “I don’t believe I do run a police service in which handcuffing is routine.”
With respect, I beg to differ. The robotic, thoughtless handcuffing of people following arrest/ during searches, is an endemic problem amongst the Police nationwide, which really deserves more serious attention than it is getting. Statistics show that during 2018- 19 Officers in England and Wales used handcuffs over 300,000 times (with black people, for the record, some 6 times more likely than white people to be handcuffed).
Many Officers seem to think that the manacling of a person’s hands is almost a formal requisite of every arrest/ detention, irrespective of how compliant, co- operative and non- threatening their subject is. Handcuffing should in fact be the exception, not the rule; it is a use of force, an act of violence, very likely to cause at least transitory pain to a person, whilst at the worse extreme it can result in fractures, nerve damage and/or permanent scaring to the arm. Over and above the physical impact, there is also the psychological damage caused by the shock and humiliation of having your hands chained together, often in a very public place. It is a degrading act to be performed upon anyone and seems wholly at odds with that principle of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ upon which our justice system is founded; to be placed in handcuffs is at once a casual assertion by the Police of their total power over you, and at the same time an emotionally outrageous branding/ marking of you as a criminal – or at least, a suspected criminal.
I fully accept that there are plenty of occasions when the Police are fully justified in using handcuffs to restrain a violent individual, but I have acted for countless people who in no way meet that definition, and the current media spotlight is further highlighting the extent of this problem.
Early this year my client Deborah Brown was awarded damages at Northampton County Court having been handcuffed by Northamptonshire Police within minutes of a fall in which she had sustained a serious fracture to her wrist. Deborah is a middle aged woman of good character, a local businesswoman and indeed Town Councillor who posed no threat of violence or resistance to the Police. The placing of handcuffs on her broken wrist was entirely gratuitous and unnecessary; another example of lazy and thoughtless Policing, in my opinion.
Another example of the prevalence of this Policing problem is the case of my client David Turner, a young man suffering from both ADHD and autism, who was only 13 years old when he was stopped by Police whilst cycling home from the barbers, pushed up against a fence and handcuffed. The Police ‘justification’ of their actions was a drugs search (which was negative) but I do not believe anything can truly justify the placing of a 13 year old child in handcuffs in these circumstances. It demonstrates the mentality amongst Police Officers which Cressida Dick is at once acknowledging and then seeking to refute: the habitual use of handcuffs as if they have become second nature to the Police, without thought for the correct operation of the law. The old driving mantra ‘mirror, signal, manoeuvre’ seems to have a sinister echo in the minds of many Police Officers as: ‘stop, handcuff, search’, even where the subject of that search is a child.
And I have already blogged about the case of my client Tariq Stanley, whose claim against the Metropolitan Police is ongoing, and a significant feature of which is the hurtful, humiliating and utterly unjustified decision to handcuff a polite, non- resistant and co- operative person.
Whilst I welcome the suggestion that the Met will now launch a review of their Officers ‘handcuffing practices’, I am cautious about what will be achieved given the fact that Cressida Dick’s pious words seemed almost immediately to be undermined by the defensive language she adopted : “If there are lessons to be learned from this we will learn them” (read that, I suggest, with the emphasis on ‘if’ from the Met’s point of view) and her almost immediate denial, quoted above, that there was any real problem.
I would urge all Forces nationwide to conduct an urgent review of such matters, and to invite testimony upon these issues from members of the public and police claims lawyers such as myself to counteract the inherent bias and defensive attitudes of the ‘Police investigating the Police’.
In the meantime, I will end by echoing my recent thoughts regarding the social good that is done by the increasing prevalence of individual citizen’s mobile phone footage cataloguing and exposing such misdemeanours by the Police. Long may appropriate ‘surveillance of the State’ continue. Widespread Police accountability and reform will only happen under the continued and committed focus of the public gaze.
(Please note that the names of my clients identified in this blog as Deborah and David have been changed to preserve their anonymity).