Once upon a time in galaxy far, far away there lived a North African man in a bed-sit. He had entered as an asylum-seeker – albeit his claim had been denied. Our story commences at the point where he was part-way into the Home Office’s appeal’s procedure, some three years after his arrival. Throughout the period, the man had ongoing problems with his mental health, exacerbated by cannabis use, and he was often psychotic. He had been arrested no more than 6 times, but each time was assessed in custody for his mental health. These assessments occurred after his drug-induced psychosis had eased and he was never referred to services. In any event, there were grounds to believe he would not have engaged with them anyway.
One evening, the police were called to the address in which his bed-sit was contained. An old Victorian, terraced building of some stature, it was long past its best and someone had destroyed its former character by carving into half a dozen one bedroom ‘flats’. The 999 call was concerning: a man had threatened the caller with a knife and attempted to stab him. The man had escape uninjured and barricaded himself into his own flat. The man was now kicking off the door and he was stacking furniture against it door and locking himself in the bathroom.
Two uniformed constables in a standard response car rushed to the scene, more were coming and this story pre-dates the availability of taser. Upon arrival, they could not get through the communal door of the premises and nothing could be heard. Control rang the caller who promptly appeared through a window at the top of the building screaming, “Here!” as he threw down his house keys. The officers let themselves in, batons drawn but not ‘racked’ (extended), and made up the stairs.
As they reached the first floor landing, they came across the offender, our asylum-seeking North African man who was acutely disturbed. He was also heavily armed, it turns out with not one, but three knives – one of them drawn. An officer screamed, “put the knife down” and deployed CS spray which had precisely no effect whatsoever.
The man continued towards them, he was slashing at them with the knife and he pulled out another from a pocket. The officers were forced backwards having to choose between being cornered or moving down the stairs. They chose the latter and actually ran down the stairs, whilst calling for urgent assistance. The control room called for a dog handler, supervisors and firearms officers.
When they reached the bottom of the stairs they turned to assess what they had: the man was walking down the stairs, chanting. They both racked their batons and decided to confront him as he slashed at them. (They later argued, that had they left the building, the man was no longer contained and they had less control. A different way of saying the same thing is: “I’d rather put myself in potentially mortal danger than let those risks unfold towards the public.”)
The man kept shouting and chanting. “Get back, put the knife down! Get back, get back!!” The offender thrust the knife towards one of the officers, his colleague batoned him to the upper arm – no effect – and then to the arm not attempting to stab his mate. The ‘attacked’ officer used a ‘figure of eight’ technique to stop the knife getting close to him or his body armour and feared he would be stabbed – his vest got slashed. The officers were now beginning to feel the effects of CS spray – the man with the knife was not. Getting a bit more desperate, they batoned the arms, repeatedly to try and cause the knives to drop. One officer batoned one arm enough times and with sufficient force to break the bone in the forearm – twice. The offender still kept attempting to attack. The other officer, still shouting, repeatedly batoned the other arm, breaking it once.
The officers moved around the small lobby, just about big enough to allow three people to dance. They kept shouting, they batoned him again, then one officer ‘rushed’ him, just after a final strike and they both wrestled him to the ground. The man kept fighting on the floor, with a three breaks to two arms, as if impervious to pain without releasing the knives. After arresting for attempted murder and handcuffing him, other officers transferred the man to A&E where he was assessed and sedated. Some while later, he was assessed under the Mental Health Act and admitted to a medium secure unit with appropriate treatment to his arms.
The police officers who dealt with this incident now both suffer from PTSD. One in particular has permanent trouble sleeping, he suffers – present tense – flashbacks and has had counselling because he feared he would die and he deliberately and instinctively took that risk upon himself to contain broader risks to the public. He is very aware of cases such as that of PC Jon HENRY from Bedfordshire, who was fatally stabbed whilst dealing with an armed, resistant mental health patient.
Because the man was admitted under s3 MHA to a medium-secure unit, the CPS were reluctant to prosecute him at all. After all, he’ll end up back in the same unit getting the same care by the same people, so what’s the point?! This was despite his repeated incidents of drug-induced psychosis and his previous violent crimes. To persuade the CPS, it took specifically worded representations about evidence, public interest, Code for Crown Prosecutors and the CPS’s own guidance on mentally disordered offenders, including an explanation of the benefits of a s37/41 order in cases like these. Three lawyers later and it was then worth charging the man (with GBH with intent) and putting him through the criminal justice system – it also means, having been found responsible for a violent offence, he will be subject to MAPPA when he is released, to better manage any risks he poses and subject not just to release, but to ‘conditionally restricted release’. In effect, these are licence conditions which allow him to be recalled to hospital, if needed.
He was found unfit to stand trial but pleaded ‘guilty’ the act done and was given a restricted hospital order. None of this helps the police officer sleep or stops the flashbacks.
The most tragic thing about this story, is that it is not that unusual and most cops have got at least a few of these stories to tell. I would argue that by bringing an understanding of MH and the MHA to bear on the case, I persuaded the CPS to charge. In the long run, it better protects the public as this man will be subject to oversight by MAPPA when he is discharged from hospital and will be subject to recall by the Ministry of Justice if he does not comply with community treatment. Had he not been prosecuted, he would not have had that scrutiny – investigating cops need to know how to press these buttons.