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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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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Why Andrew Mitchell got lucky

Iain Gould, Actions Against the Police SolicitorBy Iain Gould, Solicitor

Andrew Mitchell, the ‘Plebgate’ MP and former Chief Whip, appeared at a press conference yesterday in his ongoing case against the police.

Mr Mitchell, who I have previously written about here, is angry that the Crown Prosecution Service (‘CPS’) declined to prosecute PC Toby Rowland, the police officer at the centre of the story who reported the incident on 19 September 2012.

While his case continues, in my opinion, Mr Mitchell got lucky.

Andrew Mitchell’s disputed case against the police

On 19 September 2012, there was an incident at the gates of Downing Street between Mr Mitchell and PC Rowland.

The police officer declined to allow Mr Mitchell to exit on his bicycle via the main security gates, which were closed.

The officer instead directed Mr Mitchell to a nearby pedestrian gate which he opened for the politician.

In response, PC Rowland claims that Mr Mitchell said,

‘You should know your f***ing place, you don’t run this f***ing government, you’re f***ing plebs.’

Mr Mitchell, however claims that he simply said,

‘I thought you guys were supposed to f***ing help us.’

Although the exact wording of what was said is disputed, both say that the officer warned Mr Mitchell for swearing.

In the following weeks, newspapers published a story quoting the ‘plebs’ comment, Mr Mitchell resigned as Chief Whip, and a Channel 4 investigation cast doubt on the police’s version of events.

Following an expensive year-long investigation, the CPS have decided to prosecute only one police officer, PC Wallis, who claimed to have witnessed the incident in an email to his MP. All other police officers involved, including PC Rowland, will not face criminal charges.

Five police officers face gross misconduct charges, and three face lesser charges. PC Rowland is not among them.

Andrew Mitchell’s response to the CPS

At Tuesday’s press conference, Mr Mitchell explained the personal effects of the ‘Plebgate’ story.

As a result of the alleged lies of PC Toby Rowland, Mr Mitchell claims that:

  • his reputation was destroyed;
  • he was vilified relentlessly;
  • he received over 800 hate emails;
  • he and his family were driven from their home because of the press pack outside;
  • his mother in law was pursued in Swansea;
  • he was spat at in the street; and
  • he lost his job as chief whip.

In a direct challenge to both the police and the Director of Public Prosecutions, the politician said,

‘I wish now to make clear that PC Toby Rowland, who was responsible for writing those toxic phrases into his notebook, was not telling the truth.’

He intends to sue The Sun newspaper for libel. The tabloid was the first to use the ‘pleb’ remark and stands by its story. In suing the newspaper, Mr Mitchell hopes to call PC Rowland to give evidence and allow a jury to decide whose version of events is to be believed in his long-running case against the police.

How Andrew Mitchell is lucky in his case against the police

Both the police and Mr Mitchell agree the basic facts of the incident on 19 September as outlined above.

So, even after a public argument with the police in which Mr Mitchell admits swearing at an officer, all he received was a warning.

Unlike many of my clients, he was not:

  • assaulted;
  • arrested;
  • handcuffed;
  • escorted to a Police station;
  • obliged to provide his fingerprints or DNA sample;
  • required to have his details kept on the Police National Computer;
  • detained in police custody;
  • interviewed; or
  • prosecuted.

Don’t get me wrong, I sympathise with Mr Mitchell and his plight but as a specialist in actions against the police, I believe that Mr Mitchell was lucky to simply end up with a warning.

I am contacted by many clients who are not so fortunate.

Peter Garrigan’s case against the police for fabricated evidence

Picture of Peter Garrigan, a man who won a claim against the police after they fabricated evidence against him.
Peter Garrigan, showing a black eye caused after a police assault.

A few weeks ago, my client Peter Garrigan (details used with permission) was awarded £13,000 compensation after a unanimous jury verdict that police officers had fabricated evidence following a four-day trial at Liverpool County Court.

You can read the full report of his case against the police here.

Mr Garrigan was arrested and assaulted by officers of British Transport Police at Lime Street Station on 19 March 2009 as he attempted to assist his younger brother Daniel.

Daniel was detained by a ticket inspector as he had an invalid train ticket.

The inspector called the police when Mr Garrigan refused to leave his brother’s side.

British Transport Police officers appeared and told Mr Garrigan to leave.

Peter refused and attempted to explain the situation on behalf of his brother.

One officer took Peter’s arm. As Mr Garrigan broke free, telling the officer that force was unnecessary, the officer:

  • pushed Mr Garrigan against a wall;
  • kneed him in the stomach;
  • punched him;
  • forced him to the ground with a ‘leg sweep’;
  • pinned him face down on the train station floor;
  • put him in handcuffs; and
  • arrested him.

Mr Garrigan, who had never been arrested before, was taken to Wavertree Police Station.

Following an interview, Peter was issued a Fixed Penalty Notice for a breach of Section 5 of the Public Order Act for using ‘threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour’.

After Mr Garrigan indicated that he would appeal against the notice the police dropped the case against him ‘for procedural purposes’.

In a case against the police which has parallels with Andrew Mitchell’s story, Peter claimed that the police officers who assaulted him lied in their written accounts about how the incident had occurred to cover up the police assault and arrest, and to justify prosecuting him.

The threat of police prosecution hung over Peter for several months. He was stressed and upset as although the proposed prosecution was short-lived, it was of great significance in that a conviction could have ruined his dream of joining the army.

The police assault left Peter with visible injuries to the head, face and shoulders, as well as headaches and pains which lasted for several months.

Peter was determined to take a case against the police for the police assault, unlawful arrest, fabrication of false evidence, and misfeasance in public office.

After three civil court trials (read the case report for why) a jury found that the police officers assaulted Peter and fabricated evidence.

Peter won his case against the police, received an apology, £13,000 compensation, and legal costs.

Another case against the police after acquittal at Crown Court

I have just settled Mr. Thomas’s case against the police for substantial damages and legal costs.

Unlike Andrew Mitchell, Mr. Thomas (name changed), who used less colourful language in his encounter with the police, was prosecuted and convicted at court for a breach of Section 5 of the Public Order Act.

He had to appeal to the Crown Court to have his conviction overturned, and instruct me to pursue a civil case against the police to obtain justice.

You can read Mr. Thomas’s case report on my blog.

On 9 August 2008, Mr. Thomas was shopping in Morrisons Supermarket when he saw a uniformed police officer also doing his shopping.

He asked the officer,

‘There is a 9.2 million pound deficit forecast for the next 3 years and you are here shopping for bloody shoelaces and shoe polish.  Do you think this is acceptable?’

The officer replied that he needed shoelaces to chase criminals and warned Mr. Thomas that he considered his conduct amounted to a breach of Section 5 of the Public Order Act.

As with Peter Garrigan, the policeman said that he used ‘threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour’.

Mr. Thomas was shocked to hear that and advised the officer that he would lodge a complaint as he considered this an unjustified response to a legitimate question.

He visited the nearby Police Station and filed his complaint.

Two months later, Mr. Thomas was charged with breaching Section 5 of the Public Order Act and the case proceeded to trial.

The officer gave evidence to the effect that Mr. Thomas was aggressive and intimidating.

CCTV footage, which would have helped Mr. Thomas, was not disclosed by the Police or Crown Prosecution Service.

Mr. Thomas was convicted at the Magistrates’ Court and appealed to the Crown Court.

The CCTV evidence was shown at the appeal. It supported Mr. Thomas’s case that he was not aggressive or intimidating, and that the policeman himself did not seem alarmed or distressed.

Two years after the charges were brought Mr. Thomas’s appeal succeeded and his conviction was overturned.

I was contacted by Mr. Thomas in 2011 and asked to pursue a case against the police for malicious prosecution on his behalf.

I agreed to act by way of conditional fee ‘no win no fee’ agreement.

The claim was denied and I was obliged to issue Court proceedings against Leicestershire Police.

They vigorously fought the claim but shortly before trial Leicester Police agreed to negotiate.

They eventually paid my client fifteen times more than they originally offered in damages and legal costs.

Picture of Andrew Mitchell, 'plebgate politician' involved in a police misconduct matter.
Andrew Mitchell, ‘plebgate’ politician

Lucky man

Andrew Mitchell has been harshly treated by the police, media and his political party.

For a while, he was held up as a poster boy for everything wrong with the out-of-touch Tory party, the elite ruling classes, and modern Britain in general.

He was lucky though.

He was never assaulted, arrested, or pursued in the courts.

He had access to powerful friends and media contacts that could assist him in proving his case.

Afterwards, he could use his public profile to force the authorities to thoroughly investigate. He can pursue a libel case to clear his name.

Compared to my clients above, and the vast majority of us, he remains a privileged man.

If you want to pursue a case against the police contact me via my firm’s website or call 0151 933 5525. Alternatively, read more on my blog www.iaingould.co.uk.