I loved the area where I worked as a PC – Winson Green in Birmingham. For a young police officer, it was a brilliant grounding in the demands and complexities of police work and it involved more than the average dose of mental health incidents.
Early one Sunday evening, my mate and I were driving around in our car having had a fairly quiet afternoon. We were called to an address near to the old Victorian mental health hospital to a guy who had regularly been detained there under the Mental Health Act. The lad in his early 20s lived with his parents and had become unwell after stopping his medication. His parents had contacted mental health services and the Crisis Team attended and sectioned him: all without police involvement.
As soon as he was told that he was going to be sectioned, he ran into the kitchen and grabbed a large knife, threatening everyone present. The AMHP and the doctors immediately left the premises for their own safety, trying to pull his mother out of the address as they left. She refused to go and her son promptly barricaded himself into his bedroom. He piled furniture behind the doors and was doing who-knows-what in there with that knife.
We arrived, the first car there. As our sergeant was having a day off so the neighbouring area’s sergeant came over to us and demanded two more double crewed cars. It was obvious that negotiation may well be futile and time was of the essence. I was despatched back to the station to get the public order van and public order kit for four of us. The sergeant quickly put his instructions out that we were to get the ‘riot’ gear on and take long protective shields – we were being sent in to restrain, detain and convey this guy to hospital. Getting police public order kit on with all the pads and gloves, helmet and shield is not as quick as you’d hope but all the while the sergeant and the lad’s mother had been trying to keep him engaged and talking. They faced a barrage of abuse and threats, he said he was going to kill whoever came in the room first.
When we took ourselves and our shields upstairs, I know I was thinking of the training we do on this kind of thing in annual public order training. As “Level 2″ public order officers, we rehearse each year how you deal with such incidents: how you enter the room, how you link and move with shields, how you keep yourself safe given that you’re being required to face a man armed with a knife, acutely mentally ill who is threatening to kill people. This was the first time in my career – alas, not the last – when I was being required to put this training into practice. So the four of us got ready. The sergeant was telling him what was going to have to happen if he didn’t put down the knife and come out of the room, he was taking care of all the comms and legalities around trying less restrictive things so that if we did have to act, we were doing so because all else had been tried and failed. None of it worked – time to earn our pay.
We moved into position and tried forcing the door open. There was a considerable amount of furniture behind it and he obviously heard us preparing to enter, so two of us pushing against the door made no difference. We were stood at the top of the stairs, two of us side by side and the two other in public order gear were behind us. The sergeant was half-way down the stairs watching. He tapped the wall to the left of the door a couple of times and said, “Why don’t we take the wall down?!” His mother confirmed that she just wanted it safely resolved and didn’t care about walls or damage.
So with her permission, one of the rear pair took ‘the key’ (a large red door enforcer) to the wall and made easy work of the plasterboard. The two guys behind us were then able to start pushing furniture through the hole they’d made and we put pressure on the door again. This time it worked – we were able to push the shields against a wardrobe and chest of drawers, push them out of the way and get in.
This young man was looking about as startled as I felt and I could clearly see he had this large kitchen knife in his right had, raised at us. He started shouting ,”Fuck off, get out!” and then “I’m gonna fucking stab you!” in a threatening voice as he moved towards us. We were shouting too, “Put the knife down, put the knife down!” and were able to pick up some momentum once we had navigated the furniture. The front two of us moved at him quickly and jointly struck him with a forward movement of our shields.
When we practice this in public order training, we’re working against a trainer who is padded, booted and protected and really intent on fighting – it’s hard work. Doing it for real for the first time made me realise the trainers are correct: when you use these tactics on a target wearing jogging trousers, trainers and a t-shirt, the impact is significant. Having been struck by two public order shields – knife still in hand, abuse still coming – he was propelled back against the wall of the bedroom and we followed up with shields, pinning him to the wall. His arms we splayed to the sides although his right hand retained hold of the knife. One of the two officers behind us took care of the knife. They then took control of his hands in wrist locks and between us he was slowly manoeuvred into position where he was handcuffed to the rear, stood up. Once the knife had been taken from him, he didn’t actually resist that much so there was no need to restrain him on the floor or anything similar.
He was quite obviously distressed and again, training kicked in: with the physicality over and a high level force no longer needed or justifiable, we could try to talk to him, to reassure him. Helmets came off and we looked a bit more like human beings trying to look keep him safe. I’m not sure how successful it was, but it was clear that he’d have seen a change in our manner once the knife was out of the equation and he’d begun to stop resisting. The AMHP was still around, but the doctors had left. The sergeant had called an ambulance to the scene somewhere whilst we were busy and the young lad was checked over before being moved to the psychiatric unit where the AMHP had applied for his admission.
Was this level of force needed and justifiable? Absolutely. This was in 1999 – it was only two years previous to the incident, that PC Nina Mackay of the Metropolitan Police had been fatally stabbed entering a building to arrest a mentally ill man for breaching bail conditions. Of course in subsequent years, PC Jon HENRY from Bedforshire Police and DC Michael SWINDELLS (pictured) from my own force would each die from stab wounds by mental health patients. We knew that this man had taken a knife; we knew he’d made threats to harm; we knew that nothing short of this level of force would suffice without putting ourselves at grave risk. The sergeant had spent a lot of time explaining this to the lad’s mother. Ultimately, once she knew he was uninjured bar a few red marks where the shields struck him, she was satisfied that we’d done our best and kept him and ourselves safe, ultimately.
There is no overarching point to this story: it is just an example of a job I was once involved in; for it’s own sake after feedback that more ‘real-life’ jobs would be welcome on the blog.