This whole blog and various specific tales within it are testimony to my interest in, my commitment to and my passion to widen awareness about mental health issues within the police; and about policing challenges in our society when officers deal with mental health issues in various forms.
A few months ago, I was posted to a duty involving my second police passion: public order policing. I was posted as police commander for a large cultural event in Birmingham. Within that event, there was to be much singing, dancing, music as well as food stalls, bars and other entertainment. It was more than a local event, it attracted well-known musical entertainers who have topped the charts and have a large following. We were expecting potentially tens of thousands of attendees. The whole event was a great – a family atmosphere, a community policing style where officers were enforcing little, ensuring safety and engaging in good-natured ‘banter’ within men, women and children across the whole day and although the bars were open there was no alcohol related violence or disorder. But there was just one fight: and it broke out within a few metres of me and three other police officers who were immediately summonsed to it, by those around it. A man and woman who don’t know each other had an argument about queues and pushing and he allegedly punched her in the face. Her friend, another man, tried to push him away at which point people were looking for and calling the police.
As soon as the four of us ran over, the alleged offender and his mate were off. He was distinctive enough, because he was the only man around not wearing a shirt. Trying to disappear into a crowd who were busy listening to the headline act of the show, pumping out well-known pop music at ear-blistering levels. Not my musical cup of tea at all, I’m afraid. The need to grab this bloke before he vanished was time critical. With so many people around, unless we grab him within 60 seconds or so, he’ll be lost within the crowd and we’ve got no idea who he is. So two of us went after him and arrested him for assault. Because of his extremely violent resistance, the loud music and the crowd, it was a dangerous arrest: would the crowd back off and give us the room we needed, would they turn on us for detaining him, thinking our tactics excessive? All relevant stuff. This man resisted massively and the two of us could only just get him out of the main crowd and to the side. We more or less just had to hold him, whilst waiting for more police and it ended with up with a bout six of us to get him handcuffed, leg restrained and then carried to a police vehicle. All the while, he was threatening to kill us, punch us the minute the cuffs came off, etc., etc.. Frankly, we were so exhausted from restraining this guy, that when the other officers arrived to support, they took over because we were fatigued and to this day, months and months later, my right wrist hurts from the strain my arms were under and I’m reminded of this job every time I lift a heavy box.
So imagine my surprise when we get to the custody office and he tells the custody sergeant of his mental health problems. How could I miss that?! Then I’m having flashbacks – he’s stripped to the waist; he’s extremely aggressive; he was being restrained by six police officers; he’s got mental health problems; we don’t know whether he has taken drugs or alcohol, but we found drugs on him.
I was thinking about this incident this week in light of various discussions and news articles about mental health related restraint incidents and contact deaths. This incident involved a lot of things: allegations of crime, the need to preserve evidence, the need to arrest a man; the need to do this quickly, because if we don’t do it now we may not do it at all; the need to do it amidst a crowd who seem good-natured, but may have any number of responses to an arrest right in the middle of a crowd at a cultural event; the need to then keep the public and police officers as safe as possible from an extremely resistant man; the need to get more officers to a place which is difficult to describe because the ‘main stage’ is a large place. Oh, and mental health problems which might, but which just might not, be relevant to anything at all of immediate priority. It may, it is only of relevance slightly later.
I highlight this case, not least because of more feedback about blogging real incidents, but also because of the difficulties in identifying (potential) mental health problems. I’ll be honest: at no stage did I think “mental health” and I’ve always understood that even where officers are aware of mental health issues; or even here extremely committed to better identifying or responding to them, we won’t always get it right. I was undertaking to the best of my ability, restraint in accordance with training and as other officers took over when they arrived after several minutes of heart pumping exertion, I watched them do likewise: in accordance with training. Of course, what I knew nothing about, was any history of any mental health issues, any previous contact with services or whether any care he was in receipt of included any omissions. In hindsight, professional assessment confirmed those issues to be of no relevance to the investigation which then took place into the alleged assault. They would have been of relevance to any “restraint” inquiry had the worst occurred.
Sometimes, policing needs to react quickly in accordance with law and training to situations where unknown background factors could – but fortunately for us, did not – conspire against a safe outcome for all. In other circumstances, where more is known or where time allows for a more nuanced consideration of someone’s behaviour, mental health considerations need to be woven into the care offered to detainees on arrest and during the investigation of allegations against them.
NB: Nothing in this blog is a reaction or response to any specific inquiry of police restraint, or in any way a general reaction. It is merely an anecdote and some of my observations about it after the event.