Is Police ‘Conflict Management’ Training Working?

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

Photo of John Hagan, solicitor.
John Hagan, solicitor.

Those of us who want to live in a civil society, where violence is always the last resort, and not some version of a Judge Dredd comic, in which a ‘hardcore’ police force shoots people for littering, may have been dismayed by the reaction of some sections of public opinion to a video released this week showing a Metropolitan police officer shouting at a motorist and viciously smashing the motor car’s windscreen with his truncheon, before trying to cut his way in through it with a knife.

In the video the police officer can be seen confronting the motorist (identified in press reports of this story as Leon Fontana), who, perhaps not coincidentally, is a young Black man. My colleague Iain Gould has previously blogged about the dangers of “Driving whilst Black” i.e the perception that black men are disproportionately targeted by the police for traffic stops.

The police have powers under S.163 and 164 of the Road Traffic Act 1988 to require drivers to stop their vehicles and produce their licence and insurance and confirm their identity. It does not however empower the police to require that a motorist who has been stopped must exit his vehicle, nor to require that he hand over his car keys.

Whilst it is true that Leon states he is not going to get out of the car, he is otherwise co-operating with the officer, and is not refusing to let the officer check his details. When the officer states that he is concerned that Leon might just drive off, Leon removes his keys from the ignition and places them on the dashboard…then within 30 seconds of the conversation beginning the officer is screaming “Get out of the car! You’re not allowed to drive it!” and starts smashing the windscreen viciously.

It appears that the officer has just received some information suggesting that Leon may only have a provisional licence (this subsequently proves to be incorrect, as it is a case of mistaken identity, cleared up within moments, as soon as other officers become involved…). However the officer immediately reacts to this information by shouting “Get out the car – you’re not allowed to drive it!” and within 15 seconds has started to pummel the side of the car with his truncheon before the man inside has even had a chance to respond. The officer is now screaming his command “Get out of the car!” as if he was involved in a life and death situation rather than a routine traffic stop. If a member of the public had been behaving like this – basically attacking the car and shouting at the top of his voice – he would surely have been arrested. The officer appears to have no impulse control in this situation, and there is no sign that he made any attempt at a reasonable and civil discourse with the driver. Surely this is not how we want our police officers to behave, nor why we empower them with special authority to inflict violence or commit damage to property. The officer was, in my opinion, behaving in a totally unprofessional and irresponsible manner.

As the footage continues, the motorist can be heard telling the attacking officer (in an entirely calm tone of voice) that he has a licence and insurance. The officer informs the motorist “You are not qualified, you’re not allowed to drive” apparently having jumped to an unshakeable belief that the motorist is an unqualified individual without going to the trouble of listening to what he is being told, or making any effort to check documents and establish the driver’s actual identity.

Manifestly, the police are here to reduce violence and aggression in society, not actively introduce it into otherwise calm situations (the motorist had clearly responded to police instructions to stop his car and was talking to them through an open window).

If somebody tells an officer that they have been mistaken for somebody else, surely the officer should spend at least a minute or two investigating that possibility in an amicable manner rather than shouting the person down and smashing his windscreen to pieces? And what purpose was being served by the officer smashing the windscreen – surely he didn’t intend to pull Leon out through it? The destruction of someone’s property by a police officer to make them comply with instructions during a low- level traffic stop is in my opinion a crazy and unjustifiable turn of events.

In my opinion, the police officer’s actions can only be characterised as anti- social, thuggish behaviour which clearly flies in the face of the norms of civilised behaviour as well as the specific training which police officers are given as to how to resolve a conflict situation.

Police officers are extensively taught the techniques of ‘conflict management’ which emphasise that violence must be a last resort after non- violent approaches to resolving the situation in the form of ‘officer presence’ and ‘tactical communications’ are first considered. Does anyone really doubt that the officer pictured in this video could have had a productive conversation with the motorist had he so chosen?

Sadly, as I discovered during my appearance on the Jonathan Vernon Smith (JVS) Show on BBC 3 Counties radio last week, some people do condone the officer’s behaviour.

You can listen to my interview here:

One caller to the show stated “the guy in the car should be prosecuted” whilst another called the motorist a “toe rag” and accused him of “winding up” the officer by the act of filming the confrontation.

JVS himself, perhaps adding fuel to the fire of his listener’s fury, speculated aloud that the police may have believed Leon to be a dangerous criminal with a history of using weapons, and that he might even have had “a gun in the glove box”. However, there was no basis for this assertion. All the evidence available to us is to the effect that the worse the police suspected of Leon was that he was driving without a full licence or insurance, which is a non- imprisonable offence.

The police are entrusted with special powers to use force against other citizens, but it is only right that the officers respect the safeguards that the law has put in place to prevent the abuse of those powers and to ensure that we have a functioning civil society in which people can have trust in the police – without which, they obviously cannot do their jobs and the risk of harm to both officers and citizens generally increases.

Police powers of arrest without a warrant are enshrined in the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 S.110. In order to exercise his power of arrest, the officer must have a reasonable belief in its necessity on the basis of one or more of the following criteria –

  1. that:
  • the name of the relevant person is unknown to, and cannot be readily ascertained by, the constable,
  • the constable has reasonable grounds for doubting whether a name furnished by the relevant person as his name is his real name,
  1. that:
  • the relevant person has failed to furnish a satisfactory address for service, or
  • the constable has reasonable grounds for doubting whether an address furnished by the relevant person is a satisfactory address for service,

3. that the constable has reasonable grounds for believing that arrest is necessary to prevent the relevant person:

  • causing physical injury to himself or any other person,
  • suffering physical injury,
  • causing loss of or damage to property,
  • committing an offence against public decency, or
  • causing an unlawful obstruction of the highway,
  1. that the constable has reasonable grounds for believing that arrest is necessary to protect a child or other vulnerable person from the relevant person.
  2. that the constable has reasonable grounds for believing that arrest is necessary to allow the prompt and effective investigation of the offence or of the conduct of the person in question, or
  3. that the constable has reasonable grounds for believing that arrest is necessary to prevent any prosecution for the offence from being hindered by the disappearance of the person in question.

It is highly questionable whether the officer in this case could have possibly had a reasonable belief that any of the above conditions applied to Leon Fontana. In which case, he had no power to arrest Leon, and no power to use force against his motor car to effect an ‘arrest’ – which renders his smashing of the windscreen not only a civil but possibly a criminal offence.

Contrary to what some of the listeners of the JVS show apparently believe, there is no seventh criteria of “having reasonable grounds for believing the person to be a toerag” nor any power for the police to arrest someone who is filming their encounter, or refusing to exit a vehicle, if there are no other circumstances such as a refusal to identify themselves or an attempt to abscond or obstruct the investigation of a suspected offence on the part of that person.

Here, as we can all hear, Leon was offering to identify himself – or at least was trying to go through that process in a respectful manner with the officer, but was being obstructed by the officer’s unreasonable anger towards him.

This case reminds me of another I have recently been involved with, also a video taped encounter,  in which police officers stopped a car on suspicion of ‘no insurance’ and in which the driver – a middle- aged white man as it happens – resolutely refused to identify himself to the officers involved and repeatedly made it clear that not only would he not exit the car, he would simply not identify himself or produce any documentation. The officers attempted to reason with him for  approximately 8 minutes, before deciding to discharge a CS gas spray into the car.

Whilst I do not agree that the CS gas should have been used, it is perhaps telling that in a confrontation with an older, white motorist the police gave considerably longer to conversation with an individual who was a lot more obstructive, than did the officer in this video towards a young black man.

I am sure that in the present case, all the unpleasantness could have been avoided, if the officer had just engaged in the civil conversation which Leon was offering him.

But you may think I am biased in that assertion, being a lawyer primarily working on behalf of people who believe they have been the victims of police misconduct.

In which case I will call as my next witness, the other contributor to the JVS show that morning, Peter Kirkham, who was formerly a Detective Chief Inspector with the Met.

Mr Kirkham acknowledged that the officer’s behaviour was “not a good example of conflict management skills” and made the point “when you’re dealing with a conflict situation the idea is you’re not making it more aggressive”.

Acknowledging that it was plain from the video that the officer has lost his temper, Mr Kirkham concluded by saying that if he was the supervising officer he would certainly be investigating the conduct of the officer concerned, whose actions could amount to criminal damage if there was no justification for his use of force.

The officer appears to have suffered a moment of madness; sadly for him he must now face the consequences of this. The uniform he wears is a symbol of the special authority vested in him but it does not, and should not, give him immunity from accountability for actions which if perpetrated by a member of the public may well have resulted in a night in the cells.

 

 

 

 

Why Paul Ponting’s Strip Search Was Wrong

Photo of Iain Gould solicitor, explains strip search law referring to the case of his client Paul Ponting.
Iain Gould solicitor, explains strip search law referring to the case of his client Paul Ponting.

By Iain Gould, Solicitor

You may have read in today’s papers (Daily Mail, Liverpool Echo) that my client, Paul Ponting, is suing Lancashire Police for compensation following his arrest and strip search in June 2014.

To strip an individual of their clothes following their arrest is one of the greatest invasions of privacy and bodily integrity that the State can perpetrate.

Here I explain the law about strip searches and how it affects Mr Ponting’s case.

(N.B. Paul Ponting has given his consent to publicity and agreed to me using details of his case here, which are based on his version of events.)

Arrest and Strip Search

At the time of his arrest Paul Ponting was a successful 42-year-old businessman and father-of-two. He owns computer shops and lives in Ormskirk, West Lancashire.

In 2014 Paul told Lancashire Police that an ex-employee was harassing him via an online hate campaign. On the evening of 18 June 2014, two uniformed police officers visited Paul and his wife at home to tell them that the police would not be taking action against the ex-employee. Mr Ponting was upset about this and an argument developed. The police arrested him for a minor public order offence and an alleged (but in any event minor) assault against one of the officers.

Paul was taken to Skelmersdale Police Station. He was frightened and worried as he had never been arrested before and was unfamiliar with the process. What happened next is in dispute. Paul’s behaviour is variously described in the Custody Record (which is completed by the Custody Sergeant, not the Claimant) as “erratic” and “violent”. (The available CCTV footage would suggest otherwise.)

The Custody Record also says that Mr Ponting refused to engage in the Risk Assessment Process (whereby the arrested person provides details about their general health). As a result, the Custody Sergeant wrote that he should be stripped of his clothes. The Sergeant justified this decision by stating that it was not possible to determine if Paul had anything on him likely to cause harm to self or others.

Paul was taken to a police cell. There he was violently manhandled, assaulted, and forcibly stripped naked by FOUR police officers. You can see photographs and CCTV footage of his painful and degrading experience here.

Paul began to experience chest pains while in police custody. He was rushed to hospital where his injuries were recorded as “multiple bruises and superficial lacerations to the limbs and a swollen left lateral hand”. He was later bailed to return to the police station where he was eventually charged.

Mr Ponting was prosecuted all the way to trial. Thankfully he was acquitted of all charges at Ormskirk Magistrates Court in November 2014.

Paul’s experience at the police station was humiliating, degrading, and undignified. He contacted me for advice as I specialise in civil actions against the police. I am now helping him bring a compensation claim against Lancashire Police for wrongful arrest, false imprisonment, assault, and malicious prosecution.

The Law in Strip Search Cases

Searching detainees is understandably important: it protects the safety of arrested persons; reduces the risk of harm to police staff; and allows material to be seized that may be subject to legal proceedings. But in my experience, all too often an arrested person’s dignity is ignored and a strip search effected on the flimsiest of excuses.

The rules about searches are rightly strict. The courts say that careful consideration should be given by custody staff before authorisation and execution of a strip search. (See Patricia Zelda Davies (by her litigation friend Zelda Davies v. Chief Constable of Merseyside Police and Just for Kids Law and Children’s Rights Alliance for England (Interveners), Court of Appeal [2015] EWCA Civ 11.)

And, as well as this clear guidance provided by the Court of Appeal, the police must consider:

All this means that:

1.      The custody officer should decide the extent of the search and the subsequent retention of any article that the detainee has with them. Officers must document the decision-making process on the Custody Record and include:

  • the reason for the search
  • those present during the search
  • those conducting the search and,
  • a record of any items found or seized.

2.      The custody officer should explain to the arrested person why it is necessary to carry out the search. Custody officers may seize clothing on the grounds that they believe the arrested person may use them to harm themselves. However, custody officers should, when deciding to remove clothing, balance the need to protect the right to life with the importance of ensuring that an arrested person’s dignity is respected.

3.      The search must be conducted with proper regard to the sensitivity and vulnerability of the arrested person and every reasonable effort must be made to secure the arrested person’s cooperation. Only if they do not consent may the officer(s) use reasonable force to carry out the search/removal of clothes (Section 117 of PACE).

Police Failures in Paul Ponting’s Case

Paul Ponting was rapidly taken from the police van on arrival at the police station, through to the Custody Desk, and then into a cell where he was forcibly stripped naked. This suggests that little or no consideration was given to Paul’s rights, or his dignity.

And if Lancashire Police suggest that its officers were concerned for Paul’s wellbeing whilst in custody, I will argue that more consideration should have been given to alternative and less invasive measures. The College of Policing guidance states:

“Officers should not automatically see strip-searching individuals for their own protection as the best way to prevent them harming themselves.”

On the facts, the police’s conduct was unjustified. I do not understand why a normal “pat down” search of Paul’s person, without removing his clothes, could not have satisfied the officers that he was not carrying anything of potential danger. Furthermore, belts and socks, which could be used to self-harm, can be removed without requiring an individual to be stripped naked. There was simply no need for Lancashire Police officers to strip Mr Ponting of his clothes and his dignity. And to then prosecute him all the way to trial on bogus charges simply added insult to painful injury.

Mr Ponting is right to pursue his case, despite recent government efforts to make it harder for claimants to seek justice and hold police officers to account. By taking action against Lancashire Police he is shining a light on their poor practices, and, hopefully, encouraging the Force to change its approach to strip searches.

Contact me for help with your actions against the police via the online form below or my firm’s website.

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Is Police Taser Policy Working?

Is police Taser policy working? Solicitor Iain Gould, considers the evidence. By Iain Gould, Solicitor

The relentless rise in the police use of Taser “stun guns” is confirmed by the latest Home Office figures. The statistics show that police in England and Wales drew their Tasers more than 10,300 times last year, an increase of 55% since 2010.

These statistics are, to a large extent, understandable, as more and more front-line officers are equipped with the devices. This trend seems set to continue as, if it were up to the Police Federation, all front-line police officers would have the opportunity to carry Tasers (confirmed in a unanimous vote on 09 February 2015).

It’s easy to see why the police are so keen on them. The Association of Chief Police Officers like that “Taser provides an additional option to resolve situations, including the threat of violence, which can come from any section of the public.” Senior officers tell us that “The Taser is low-level officer protection equipment that is both safer and more appropriate to be used in many circumstances than a baton or firearm.” (Humberside Police Chief Superintendent Steve Graham). And, According to the Association of Chief Police Officers, “The normal reaction to the discharge of a Taser is pain, coupled with loss of some voluntary muscle control… Recovery from these effects of the Taser should be almost instantaneous, once the discharge is complete.”

So, according to the police, it’s all good. Carry on. But really, should we be concerned?

Taser Risks Exposed

Notwithstanding police claims that Tasers are low-level and safe, police policy seems to reflect the reality that the use of Taser is in fact a relatively high level use of force (IPCC review of Taser complaints and incidents 2004-2013) and that arming all officers with Tasers is effecting “compliance by pain” rather than “policing by consent” (Amnesty International press release 24 November 2008).

For this reason, Steve White, Chair of the Police Federation, said that “Any officer authorised to carry Taser must be fully trained to do so and there are strict procedures and safeguards in place to ensure all officers are fully accountable.”

But is this just hollow propaganda? Are officers fully trained? Are procedures followed? Are police officers held to account?

Consider the ongoing case of my client Mr S (name withheld for privacy reasons).

Police Taser a Peacemaker

On 21 June 2013, Mr S went to his son’s ex-girlfriend’s flat to mediate in a disagreement over access to their baby son.

Mr S arrived at the same time as two police officers. His son’s ex-girlfriend’s mother allowed the officers entry but blocked Mr S and then sought to slam the door in his face. Mr S accepts that he held his ground and may have gripped the door frame. At this, one officer pushed Mr S away and said, “go away”.

Mr S accused the officer of assault and asked for his badge number. The officer replied, “I am the police” and shut the door.

Mr S felt that the officer’s conduct was unacceptable and thought about lodging a complaint. He approached the officers’ vehicle to look inside for details of the officer’s identity. He accepts that he may have accidentally caught the wing mirror of the car with his hip but he did not deliberately kick or punch it.

Mr S returned home. A short while later, the same officers arrived.

One of them advised Mr S that he was under arrest for public disorder. Mr S asked what he had done wrong. The policeman sought to handcuff Mr S who accepts that he resisted by stiffening and raising his arms in the air. There was a minor struggle for no more than 10 or 15 seconds.

Suddenly, Mr S heard a pop, which he described as “like a firecracker” going off. He felt intense but short-lived pain. The right side of his body went into an involuntary spasm and convulsion. His body “felt like jelly”. He momentarily lost his balance but was caught by the officers who grabbed Mr S’s arms and handcuffed him to the rear.

Mr S was put in the back of the officers’ patrol car. The handcuffs had been applied extremely tightly and he asked one of the officers if the handcuffs could be loosened. They refused.

The police drove him to the local Police Station where the handcuffs were finally removed.

At this stage, Mr S felt terrible. His chest hurt from where the barbs of the Taser had pierced his skin. The ends of his fingers were still trembling. He felt generally unwell. His wrists were sore and painful.

Despite his own situation, as Mr S is a full-time carer for his mother, he thought only of her wellbeing. His priority was to get out of the police station as quickly as possible.

He spoke to a duty solicitor before his police interview. He was advised that he had been arrested for both a public order offence and resisting arrest.

The police told Mr S’s solicitor that if his client accepted a fixed penalty notice for the public order offence, no further action would be taken in relation to the allegation of resisting arrest. The solicitor said that accepting the notice and payment of the fine would not be an admission of guilt. Conscious of the proposed deal, when interviewed, he deliberately underplayed the officer’s unlawful conduct and excessive use of force.

A short time later, Mr S was brought out of his cell and issued with a fixed penalty notice which he subsequently accepted and paid.

Police Complaint and Claim

Mr S was angry about the incident in which, he felt, the police deliberately injured and humiliated him. He lodged a formal complaint. In response, the police offered to resolve his complaints by local resolution.

Mr S then researched instructing a solicitor to help. As I specialise in civil actions against the police he asked me to handle his complaint and bring a compensation claim for both wrongful arrest and assault.

After a lengthy investigation process involving no less than two appeals to the Independent Police Complaints Commission (“IPCC”), his local police force have finally admitted that the use of Taser and handcuffs was inappropriate.

This only came about after the IPCC’s extremely critical comments of both PC B (the officer who Tasered Mr S) and his police force.

In a review of Mr S’s appeal, the IPCC caseworker said, 

“I would question whether PC B gave enough emphasis to the first element of the National Decision Model, which is to communicate. He does not appear to have made any attempt to communicate with Mr S beyond challenging him about hitting the police car then, when Mr S argued back, telling him he was under arrest. The matter then quickly escalated to the use of force. This is precisely why the National Decision Model places so much emphasis on good communication – in order to diffuse difficult situations, so that they use of force will not become necessary.”

Police officers are entitled to use force to make an arrest provided that it is reasonable and proportionate to the threats presented. But, the caseworker continued, “Mr S was not waving a weapon and he had not assaulted anyone. He was in his own house and not a danger to the public. He had not been violent, or threatened violence, towards the officers”.

In conclusion, the caseworker reported that “the situation should not have been allowed to develop to the point where the use of Taser became necessary. More effort should have been made, in line with the National Decision Model, to engage Mr S in dialogue about why his behaviour was not acceptable” and “in situations where the police are confronted with members of the public who are adamant that they have done no wrong, often the best approach to adopt is one of communication and dialogue. A skilled officer will make every attempt to defuse a potentially volatile situation, rather than, in this case, a quick escalation to the use of force.”

Irrespective of the police officer’s rash behaviour, what was even more concerning was his attitude to the use of Taser and his perception of its seriousness. In his interview, the officer said:

“… It’s worth raising that people’s perceptions of use of Taser is that it’s quite serious and it’s quite high up on the scale of things, and in actuality it isn’t, it’s quite low down, it comes in at the same level as just putting your hands on somebody. (my emphasis in bold)

He went on:

“….If you have to put hands on someone and you’re struggling with them it makes them angry and human nature is makes you angry as well, and Taser just eliminates that completely because there is no reason to get worked up about anything, it’s just an instant thing and straightaway it stops somebody and generally their response is quite positive, I’ve found… the control is immediate, there is no reason for anybody to get injured, and the person will then generally, you know, have a chat with you afterwards and sort of chat to you about the Taser, and you didn’t like that much and you can be friends about it.” (again, my emphasis in bold)

Quite clearly, just putting your hands on somebody is not the same as inserting barbs into their skin and discharging a 50,000 voltage electrical current through their body, causing extreme pain and loss of muscle control. The officer’s apparent naiveté about the physical and mental impact of being Tasered calls into question his training and fitness to carry a weapon.

Inadequate Taser Training

The officer’s comments led to the IPCC caseworker making a somewhat exceptional recommendation under paragraph 28A of Schedule 3 to the Police Reform Act 2002. The IPCC demanded that the police force concerned should review the training provided to officers to ensure that:

  1. The training conforms with national guidance about when, and for what purpose, a warning is given about Taser discharge, and
  2. Sufficient weight is given in training to the potentially harmful physical and psychological effects of discharging a Taser, and the benefits of using communication to defuse a difficult situation.

In addition, the caseworker criticised the police force’s handling of Mr S’s complaint. The caseworker said that, “it should never have been treated as a matter suitable for local resolution given that the complaint, if proven, could amount to gross misconduct. As such, it ought to have been subject to a full investigation from the start, with the IPCC, not the force, being the relevant appeal body. Moreover, the matter should have been referred to the IPCC at the outset in line with the requirement to refer all cases where Taser has been used and a complaint is made”. 

Last Resort

Mr S was traumatised by not only his wrongful arrest but also the excessive and disproportionate use of force against him.  He is currently undergoing counselling and in due course I will present full details of his physical and mental injuries and hopefully negotiate a settlement.

In view of inappropriate Taser use such as this incident, it is right that public concern about the increasingly routine deployment of police Taser should remain high. I accept that there are legitimate reasons for using Taser weapons in policing. Used correctly, it can be a valuable tool in assisting police officers to manage difficult and challenging situations.

But it is essential that officers are taught and understand that the device should be a last resort and not as, in Mr S’s case, a default choice where other tactical options, including communication could be effective. And where police officers fall short, their forces should to act quickly to address officer failures and accept responsibility. Only then will the public have confidence in the police’s policy on the use of Tasers.

Contact me for help with your police Taser assault claim using the online form below or via my firm’s website.

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Is Confirmation Bias Responsible for Police Taser Assaults on Black People?

By Iain Gould, Solicitor

Photo of Iain Gould, solicitor, who discusses reasons for police Taser assaults.
Iain Gould, solicitor, discusses reasons for police Taser assaults.

According to statistics just released by the Home Office to the BBC, black people are three times more likely than white people to be involved in Taser incidents.

The research shows the electric stun gun was drawn, aimed or fired 38,135 times in England and Wales over five years.

In more than 12% of cases Tasers were used against black people, who make up about 4% of the population.

I have long maintained that there is a growing trend for the unnecessary and unreasonable use of Tasers (see here, for example). Now, we have concrete evidence of their disproportionate use against a certain ethnic group.

But why?

One theory is that the police, like the rest of us, are subject to “confirmation bias” which is defined in Science Daily as the “tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions”.

If police officers have the perception that black people are more likely to be involved in criminal behaviour, that they will attempt to evade capture, or forcibly resist arrest, they will consciously or unconsciously seek out proof. Using Tasers during an arrest is just one way of justifying their (unfounded) assumptions.

Photo of Stephon McCalla's back after a police Taser assault.
Stephon McCalla’s back after a police Taser assault.

Taser Assault on Innocent Black Man

An example of police confirmation bias against black people is the case of my client Stephon McCalla (details used with his permission and based on his version of events).

Stephon is a young black man who had never been in trouble with the police. He was walking to his local gym on a sunny day in June 2010 when, unbeknown to him, local police were actively looking for a black suspect who had raped a student at knifepoint.

Mr McCalla was stopped by an officer with a dog who told him that they were looking for someone with his profile.  Stephon gave his name and address and told him he was heading to the gym. The Officer called for backup. Stephon understandably felt uneasy.

10-15 minutes after he had first been stopped, several police vehicles arrived and positioned themselves so as to box Stephon and the dog handler in. Seven white officers alighted. Stephon was extremely alarmed by developments.

Photo showing close up of Taser barb embedded in Stephon McCalla's back after police assault.
Close up of Taser barb embedded in Stephon McCalla’s back after police assault.

Four of the officers approached. At this stage, Stephon had his thumbs in his back pockets with his arms hanging down. One officer told Stephon to “Give me your hands”. Stephon did so and as he did, the officer took hold of his forearm and suddenly said, “He’s going to attack”.

The officer grabbed Stephon’s wrist and tried to force his arm behind his back and handcuff him. Stephon could not believe what was happening and having done nothing wrong and having been given no explanation, resisted.

In response, other officers applied a succession of knee strikes and blows to his body and then five or six punches to his face. Eventually, Stephon felt his leg about to give way and as he began to fall to the ground, he was Tasered to the back. His body shuddered and he fell heavily onto his right shoulder.

Following his arrest, Stephon could see the officers in discussion. They were holding a picture up on a piece of paper. He could see that the picture was of a black man’s face. The officers held it up and were looking at Stephon and looking back at the photograph. One officer said, “We’ve got the wrong man.”

Despite this Stephon was arrested and taken to a local police station. Upon arrival, he still had two of the Taser barbs embedded in his back. A police nurse and Doctor tried to remove the Taser barb from his body but concluded that the barb was embedded so deeply that Stephon would have to attend hospital.

After a short while, Stephon was taken to hospital where with some difficulty, the barb was extracted and stitches applied.

Photo of Taser barbs which were embedded in Stephon McCalla's back.
Taser barbs were embedded in Stephon McCalla’s back.

Mr McCalla was taken back to the police station where he was eventually interviewed.

The police told him that he had been stopped because he bore a strong resemblance to an armed man wanted for a serious offence but that because of how he had reacted, he had been arrested for a public order offence.

Stephon was eventually released on police bail having spent over 14 hours in custody. Several weeks later, he was advised that no further action was to be taken against him.

With my help, Stephon brought a civil action against the police. Liability was robustly denied. Notwithstanding this denial, Stephon’s claim settled for substantial damages plus costs together with an apology following the issue of court proceedings.

Addressing Confirmation Bias

It appears that the police’s confirmation bias that black men like Stephon are dangerous individuals led to this brutal and unjustified Taser assault.

Stephon’s only “crimes” were being black and in the wrong place at the wrong time. His understandable and perfectly reasonable resistance to an unlawful arrest led to the disproportionate use of force, and especially the unnecessary discharge of a Taser when he had already been subdued and was falling to the ground.

The police then showed their true colours by arresting Stephon for a (bogus) public order offence because of how he had reacted, convincing themselves that his conduct was unlawful, and fitting the confirmation bias narrative. (s.5 of the Public Order Act 1986 says that a person is guilty of an offence if he “uses threatening (or abusive) words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour”.)

In light of today’s BBC report and Mr McCalla’s case it seems to me that the police still have a long way to go to address what Sir William McPherson described as an “institutional racist” organisation in his 1999 report about the Stephen Lawrence inquiry. They need to address confirmation bias as well.

 

Contact me for help with your claim against the police using the online form below or via my firm’s website.

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Should the police use tasers on children?

This is a guest post by my colleague John Hagan. Like me, John is a solicitor who specialises in civil actions against the police.

Reflecting on my participation in a debate on the use of police tasers against children on the Jonathan Vernon Smith show (BBC Radio Three Counties, listen here) earlier this week, I am reminded of the famous words of Franklin Roosevelt – is it not the case that so often “the only thing we have to fear, is fear itself”?

Paedophobia

Mr Vernon Smith was advocating the increased use of tasers by the police (items which he described as “wonderfully useful tools” but which I might describe as “guns for electrocuting people”) as necessary to stem what he appears to believe is a rising tide of violent crime, lawless behaviour and societal breakdown particularly in urban areas blighted by poverty and people who, in his words, “have not gone to school”. He seemed to me to be painting a picture of inner- city Luton as something akin to the apocalytpic gang land of New York in the movie “Escape from New York”, and seemed to have a particular concern that the current generation of children, particularly teenagers, was more violent and out of control than 20-30 years ago. He spoke of his belief that there were ever more cases of “extreme violence where youngsters are involved.” This is in fact a common human misconception known as “paedophobia”, or fear of children, which can be found throughout the annals of recorded history. Perhaps because we know ourselves to be growing older we become fearful of the young who will supplant us; perhaps because we know nothing fundamentally bad happened to us in the past, but of course we do not know what the future holds, the present naturally seems more dangerous; perhaps because the news media thrives on the “excitement” of bad news rather than the general mundane civilities of life, it is very common for people to think they are living in a ‘worse’ time than their parents or grandparents did. Such sentiments are found being loudly expressed in every human generation.

Crime Statistics

But that does not mean they are true. The latest UK official crime statistics show, as they have shown in a continuous trend for several years now, that crime generally is falling and that violent crime in particular in at its lowest level since 1981. The April 2014 Crime Survey of England and Wales, prepared by the Office for National Statistics, shows that in 2013 on a proportional level, 2 in every 100 adults were victims of violent crime, compared with 5 in every 100 in 1995. This directly contradicts the basis on which Vernon Smith and others want to roll out ‘armament’ of the police. Violent crime is not rising; they are afraid of phantoms. And such a fear is not, in my opinion, any kind of sound basis for fundamentally changing the nature of policing in this country by replacing an unarmed constabulary with one which is armed with firearms as a matter of course.

I consider this to be the thin end of the wedge of militarisation of the police, leading inexorably towards the American model where every cop has a gun, and the population as a whole has 300 million guns, which is statistically almost one per person. Is that where we want to go ? Escalation – an ‘arms race’ between the cops and the robbers will ensue, and it is simply not necessary. We live in a more peaceful and gentle society than we did 20 years ago. And perhaps, I might have said to Mr Vernon Smith, there are other ways we should deal with the problems of the poverty and lack of education than shooting the children of the poor with taser guns.

Police Taser Abuse

My firm has represented numerous adult individuals who have suffered at the hands of police missuse of tasers. Such situations of “trigger happy” cops, overreacting with use of a taser in situations where it is not justified (such as this case about shooting a man  with a taser who has turned his back on them in his own home, or shooting a drunken man in the back, causing him to fall and knock his front teeth out) will increase as deployment of tasers proliferate and police officers carrying such weapons becomes the norm.

So I certainly do not think we should be using tasers on children, save in the most extreme examples involving older teenagers and real threats to life and limb. The fact that the host of a BBC show can quote with apparent approval statistics showing the increased use of tasers against children as young as 11-14 is I think a warning sign that we must guard our civil liberties against this type of ‘mission creep’ lest we suddenly find ourselves living in a world where such firearms proliferate , and rather than a stern word, misbehaving children are regularly dealt with by electrocution.

Red Tape

Indeed, Mr Vernon Smith who repeatedly accused me of “not living in the real world ” and being “irresponsible” and “very disrespectful” to the police, showed that his sympathy appeared to be with the person who pulled the trigger on the taser gun, rather than the person on the receiving end of it, on the basis that, to paraphrase slightly, there’s a lot of paperwork to fill in if you shoot people. Red tape, eh? An interesting perspective with which I can do nothing but disagree in the strongest possible terms.

Mr Vernon Smith put it to me that if the police wanted tasers was that not a reason to give them tasers? Absolutely not. For all the fantastic and often very brave work that police officers do, let us not forget that giving the police unquestioningly what they ask for is living in a police state. Our society preserves its liberty and happiness by checks and balances. If the police ask for something, I think it is ok to say “No”.

And to expect not to get shot down for it.

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Compensation Claims Against the Police – What’s the Point?

By Iain Gould, Solicitor

On Thursday, I was contacted by a journalist from BBC Hereford & Worcester and asked whether I would comment on the news that the local police force, West Mercia, had paid out £700,000.00 in the past 7 years for compensation claims against the police.

These related primarily to unlawful arrest, assault, and forced searches claims.

The journalist felt that:

  • this was a significant sum of money to pay out;
  • payment of such a sum indicated that there was a real problem with West Mercia Police; and
  • they needed to get their house in order.

As I have represented a number of people who have brought compensation claims against the police in the West Mercia area, I agreed.

You can listen to the interview here:

As you will hear, initially, I was able to remind the listeners that the police enjoy wide powers over the general public. It is incredibly important that we, the public, hold them to account when they exceed those powers either accidentally (by ignorance) or by design (abuse).

When they do transgress it is important that the police:

  • apologise;
  • admit liability;
  • learn from their mistakes; and
  • pay the modest level of compensation that the law provides.

Origins of Compensation Claims Against the Police

Then the interview took a somewhat different course to the discussion I had with the BBC journalist before the interview.

Andrew Easton, the interviewer, asked me why compensation should be paid in unlawful arrest cases; how does a lump sum of compensation help that person?

I was not expecting such a philosophical debate. In essence, he was asking not about compensation claims against the police, or about the amount of compensation paid out by West Mercia Police; instead he was questioning our system of tort law.

This aspect of law dates back to Roman times (another one to add to the Monty Python “What have the Romans ever done for us?” sketch) even though the word “tort” was only referred to in the 1580s in the legal sense. Compensation is paid by one party (the tortfeasor) to the other. The intention is to put the person who has suffered a loss in the position they would have been in if the civil wrong (a tort) had not occurred.

In 2,000 years this is the best solution numerous societies have come up with, despite the drawbacks. We cannot turn the clock back but, when someone has been wrongfully arrested and suffered such an experience, should they instead receive financial compensation?

Why Pay Compensation After an Unlawful Arrest?

For anyone involved in the criminal justice system, it is easy to forget the immediate shock and upset that an unlawful arrest can cause, especially to someone who has no experience of the system and who considers themselves to be a good, law abiding, and upstanding member of the community.

Irrespective of the circumstances of the arrest (in your home, in the street, etc), you are immediately deprived of your liberty and possibly handcuffed, a painful and humiliating experience. You are then escorted to a Police station. Upon arrival, you:

  • are initially detained in a holding room before then being taken into a custody suite, possibly one of the most intimidating places you could wish to enter;
  • are then presented to a Custody Sergeant and the circumstances and reason for your arrest explained;
  • are searched and stripped of your possessions;
  • are quizzed about your general health and welfare;
  • may or may not be entitled to contact someone to advise that you have been arrested;
  • may or may not be told what is going to happen and how long you will be held;
  • are taken to a cell and the door locked. The cell will probably be no more than a 6 foot by 8 foot room with a wooden bench and small toilet. There may or may not be any natural light.

While locked up you are constantly under observation and completely dependent on the police for anything and everything, even toilet paper and the option to flush the toilet should you need.

Depending on how busy the custody suite is and available resources, the detention staff may or may not respond to any requests that you have.

Often, you may find that if you call for assistance over the intercom system (for an update, to consult the codes of practice, for a blanket or for toilet paper), you find that the police cannot respond in a reasonable period of time, or at all.

That is just the beginning.

You may or may not be held for a lengthy period of time (up to 4 whole days), interviewed, be obliged to provide your finger prints, photograph and a DNA sample, and then be bailed to return to the Police station at a later date or charged to appear in Court.

Doesn’t an experience like that deserve compensation?

My interviewer was not convinced; how is receiving an award after making compensation claims against the police going to help, he asked?

Claiming More than Compensation

During the interview, I concentrated on the principle of compensating the victim, a deeply held principle that I believe strongly and which I have maintained throughout my legal career.

My interviewer was right to challenge and on reflection; I consider that the point of paying compensation goes deeper: not only vindicating and compensating victims but (hopefully) deterring similar incidents from happening in the first place, and putting the responsibility for compensation upon the police.

Indeed, primary motives of many of my clients are for the police to learn lessons, to implement better training, and to ensure that such an event does not happen again. Frequently they also tell me that they want an apology, and that if they had received a full and frank apology at the beginning, that they would have let matters lie.

For example, a client I represented several years ago, Audrey White, was assaulted by officers of Greater Manchester Police during an anti-war public demonstration. (You can read the case report here.)

During the course of her case, I established that junior officers had been given inaccurate advice at an earlier debrief as regards the nature and extent of Police powers with regard to removal of “disguises”.

The officers then acted upon that advice in forcibly removing a Gordon Brown face mask that Audrey was wearing for political and theatrical effect causing her injury and upset.

It wasn’t about the money for Mrs. White. She donated her compensation to charity. More importantly for her, as part of the settlement, she received an apology and an assurance that lessons would be learnt.

Compensation Claims Provide Accountability

And what of the just allocation of responsibility?

There is a police complaint system in place but as I have previously blogged here and here, it leaves much to be desired.

As a result, victims are often left with no alternative but to seek redress by pursuing a claim in the civil courts. One such victim was Mr X who I reported on here.

Mr X was assaulted by a Police officer and then prosecuted by the Police for having the temerity to lodge a complaint about the officer shopping on duty.

Despite being found guilty at trial at the Magistrates Court, he was acquitted on appeal when CCTV footage became available that exonerated him. His subsequent complaint to the police was summarily dismissed.

Upon instruction, I sued the police on his behalf and shortly before trial, the Force agreed financial compensation.

During the course of the civil court proceedings, I established that by reason of an entry in his pocket note book, the officer had lied in a subsequent entry in the same note book, in his witness statement and on oath at the Magistrates court.

Following the settlement Mr X submitted a fresh complaint and the officer was interviewed under caution. A police file has now been passed to the CPS to consider criminal charges.

Such accountability for this rogue police officer would not have been possible unless Mr X had brought his compensation claims against the police.

Purpose of Compensation Claims Against the Police

So, what is the point of compensation? Many of my clients tell me that no amount of compensation makes up for the ordeal that they have gone through. They would prefer for the incident to have never happened.

In cases like this we need to remember the benefits that arise not just from the settlement but also the process.

By pursuing compensation claims against the police, my clients get much more than money: they get heard.

For help with your own compensation claims against the police contact me via my firm’s website, using the form below, or on 0151 933 5525.

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How the police and government are misleading the public about Taser assaults

Picture of Iain Gould, Solicitor (lawyer) and specialist in actions against the police claims.
Iain Gould, Solicitor (lawyer)

By Iain Gould, Solicitor

 I was interested to read in a recent article in The Sunday Times (behind paywall) about Taser assault by the police cases. It seems that the authorities are now going on a public relations offensive. By doing so, they may be deflecting attention from the real harm caused by these deadly weapons. And they are getting help from the government to do so.

Taser assault by the police media reports

Simon Chesterman, the deputy chief constable of the Civil Nuclear Constabulary and lead on armed policing for the Association of Chief Police Officers was quoted as saying:

  • the UK police’s training in the use of Tasers is “probably the best in the world”;
  • that “we’re regularly accused of being trigger-happy, but do the maths- we’re not”; and
  • that the voltage sent into the subject’s body is “very low- less than the electricity of Christmas- tree lights.”

The charm offensive may be explained by the fact that public concern about these weapons is increasing and Taser assault by the police cases are more regularly reported in the news.

This week the BBC reported how I won £24,000 compensation for my client Richard Hagan following a Taser assault by the police, and I have previously blogged about the risks of Taser use.

(You can read my thoughts about why Taser use more than doubled in two years, if the police are using Tasers correctly, and if Merseyside Police are using Tasers with excessive force by clicking on the links.)

I am not surprised that the police are keen to defend their use of these weapons, and in certain circumstances, I agree that their use is appropriate. (You can hear my interview on BBC Radio where I explain this by clicking on the link.)

But despite voicing my concerns and the increased news coverage, overall Taser use has increased dramatically from 3,128 in 2009 to 10,380 in 2013. Of this number, there were 1,733 actual Taser shootings. Chillingly, in 2011 a Taser was deployed more than 320 times against under-18s.

Picture of a Taser being discharged.

The problem with reports and statistics of Taser assault by the police cases

Reports often concentrate on the initial impact of the Taser. In The Sunday Times article one victim, Sean Lawless, simply said “It hurt. A lot”. This is understandable, as the shocking (pun intended) visual image of someone being shot with a Taser quickly captures the imagination.

But as the effect of a Taser assault by the police is to incapacitate, the injuries sustained after the initial Taser impact on falling are frequently more severe than if the subject had simply fallen over without being Tasered.

This is because when a person falls, the natural instinct is to raise their hands so as to break the fall. But once Tasered, the victim ‘freezes’ and their muscles are temporarily paralysed, giving them no chance to protect themselves.

In my experience as a solicitor who deals with claims against the police (read about me here) it is this secondary injury, caused when the victim falls, which causes more harm.

(A ‘secondary injury’ is a personal injury sustained by the victim after they are incapacitated by the Taser.)

Naturally, the police would prefer not to discuss these potentially devastating injuries and it seems to me that the government are helping the police to deflect attention from secondary injuries by the way they report on Taser assaults.

The official Home Office report: ‘Police use of Taser statistics, England and Wales, 2009 to 2011’ categorises only seven different types of use: from the lowest state of the Taser simply being drawn; to the highest state of the weapon being fired with the electrical probes making contact and causing the incapacitating effect.

Crucially, the official statistics fail to record the subsequent (secondary) injuries caused after the Taser is fired.

As a result secondary injuries are rarely commented on or reported in the news to the same extent.

This is a mistake. As Richard Hagan’s case (details provided with permission) shows, secondary injuries often affect the victim far more than the initial Taser impact.

Secondary injuries following Taser assault by police

On 7 March 2011, my client Richard Hagan, a bricklayer who was 26 at the time, had been at the Printhouse Pub in Prescot, watching a Liverpool game and having a few drinks.

Shortly after midnight he headed home with his partner and her father. They came upon a group of people arguing in the street. A police car, driven and solely occupied by PC Warren of Merseyside Police, pulled up. The officer told the group, including Mr.Hagan who happened to be nearby, to get on the pavement.

As the police car drove away someone shouted abuse at it. The car stopped and reversed. PC Warren got out and told Mr. Hagan to ‘come here’.

Instead, Mr. Hagan panicked and ran away.

The police officer chased him through a residential area. As Mr. Hagan ran towards a main road, PC Warren fired a Taser ‘stun gun’ into his shoulder and buttock. Mr. Hagan was paralysed by the electric shock and fell forwards onto the road surface. He sustained serious injuries, smashing his front four teeth, lower right incisor, and other facial injuries.

After the assault, which was seen by his distraught partner, Mr. Hagan was arrested, handcuffed and taken to Kirkby Police Station where he was kept in a police cell overnight.

As a result of the assault Mr. Hagan lost the four front teeth and had to have a bridge and crown fitted. He will need more dental work in the future.

You can hear Mr. Hagan describe how he needed about 10 months of painful dental treatment as a result of his Taser injuries in this BBC radio interview:

 

Merseyside Police denied liability and claimed that the force used was reasonable and proportionate. I disagreed. Following court proceedings, I settled Mr. Hagan’s Taser assault by the police claim for £24,000 plus legal costs.

 Unreported Secondary Taser Injuries

Public and media concern with the use of Tasers tends to focus on the 50,000 (or 1,200 if the police are to be believed) volts shot through the victim’s body and the potential cardiac issues that arise, but in my opinion the bigger risk is from secondary injuries.

As Richard Hagan’s case demonstrates, there is a significant danger of head and facial injuries when they hit the ground. These secondary injuries can be far worse than the initial electric shock from the Taser.

But the police officers who defend the use of Tasers seem to be trying to deflect the public’s attention from this.

They talk about training, how careful they are in the use of Tasers, and try to minimise the impact of Taser assaults. They refer to government statistics, which do not deal with secondary injuries, to back up their case.

But by doing so those officers, and the government officials who create the statistics on Taser use, are missing the point.

Even if the training in the UK is “the best in the world”, and the total number of Taser impacts is significantly less than the overall use figure, the weapons are still being used against civilians, including children, with potentially life-changing consequences.

And even if the amount of volts shot through a victim’s body is less than the amount used in Christmas tree lights, it is still enough to cause temporary paralysis and serious secondary injuries.

It is time that the police and government are asked about the effects of secondary injuries as well. Maybe then they will accept that the impact of a Taser assault by the police is more serious than they suggest and moderate the use of these weapons accordingly.

 

If you have been injured after a taser assault by the police contact me using the form below, on 0151 933 525, or via my firm’s website.

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Image credit: Marcelo Freixo on flickr.