This post should summarise, inexpertly, the police approach to the use of force. I am writing this because it has become obvious to me over the years, especially during debates about requests for police officers to use force on mental health patients in certain predictable situations, that we are not clear what is being implicitly requested when we ask officers to move people to hospital when they are ‘sectioned’ or return them to hospital when they have been found after becoming AWOL, for example. I am currently doing my police personal safety refresher so it seems apposite to run this particular post now.
I first want to put up large and clear, a diagrammatic example of the use of force and explain the three central, constant aspects of it – you might refer back to it these as I explain:
- The white-grey-black section in the middle: this represents the threats a police officer may be dealing with. It covers everything from people who are cooperative with the police, through to people posing a risk of causing serious injury or death and everything in between. The difference between “passively resistant” and “actively resistant” is important for policing and mental health, for reasons I’ll explain shortly.
- The blue section is a constant: officers in all situations where they are present are assessing the situation from their perspective and considering their ‘tactical options’ – what am I actually going to do? This should be ongoing assessment – risks at jobs go up and down over time, sometimes changing quickly. Police actions need to reflect this realty, whether risks suddenly rise or fall.
- Green is a constant – officers should be constantly trying to communicate. Even when we see or hear of armed officers pointing firearms at people and considering whether to shoot someone, you will notice officers shouting “Armed police, put the weapon down” or similar instructions. Even when an officer is pointing a taser or a CS-type incapacitant at you, they will be trying to avoid using it. << Yes, really!
BASIC CONTROL SKILLS
Physical control – officers are taught a range of physical control skills. We teach officers about wrist locks, arms locks and about pressure points – most techniques are designed to inflict non-injurous pain, arising from which people will be inclined to move as the officer is directing them to for the legal reasons which the officer will have in mind. For example, when making a straight forward arrest, an officer will often take hold of someone’s arm, perhaps one hand to the wrist of the suspect and the other hand around the elbow. This type of loose hold can be turned into a more forceful grip quite quickly which can then be turned into a wrist-lock if people attempt to run free or push away. These are sometimes known as ‘primary control skills’. Using your hands to restrict and control other people’s movement – of course whilst continuing to communicate where practicable.
We do actually teach police officers to punch, kick and push people. Obviously, use of such techniques would have to amount to reasonable force in the circumstances if they were used. Some are surprised by this: I have several times been asked by over enthusiastic young kids, curious about the police “Are you allowed to punch people?!” When you say, “Occasionally, yes.” they are often surprised but you then invite them to think about whether it would be reasonable to punch someone in the chest or face if that person was trying to stab you with a knife that had been suddenly produced and it was the only realistic way to stop them hurting you? “Oh, yeah, I guess.” Context is everything; abstraction is meaningless.
LEVELS OF RESISTANCE
Passive resistance – this is where someone is, for example, sitting in a road protesting. It may well be a peaceful protest, but it may well also be an offence of obstructing the highway. Sometimes, the police facilitate lawful protest and this law is not enforced. On other occasions, officers decide that they must make the person move, possibly for their own safety if nothing else. Assuming you’ve done as much persuading and encouraging, directing and ordering as you can reasonably be expected to undertake and you’ve reached the point of thinking, “Nothing I can reasonably do or say is going to make this person move” … how do you now move someone against their will?
Officers would consider, perhaps in pairs, taking hold of someone who for example, is sitting on the floor on in a chair and either first trying a loose arm hold and asking them to move or using pressure point techniques or arm / wrist locks to induce non-injurous pain and whilst encouraging the person to move. Of course, if the person’s reaction to this is to resist further, either by pushing, hitting or kicking it may have escalated to active resistance.
Active resistance – this where people are making concerted efforts to resist the police by pushing, punching, kicking, spitting, etc.. Officers may still think that physical tactics are appropriate. They may still think they can apply a wrist lock or arm lock. They may consider what the Home Office text-book calls “a distraction strike”. This could involve a strike with a fist or knee to a large muscle area which very briefly renders the suspect disoriented or unable to totally control their movements and which gives the officer a brief time in which to properly secure their wrist lock or their handcuffs. There are certain techniques for managing active resistance when an officer has just one handcuff applied to a wrist. This can involve taking a person to the floor, where officers know how to apply further types of wrist locks which can be used to ensure a persons compliance, for example until the second handcuff is securely applied and locked on.
Of course, which of these may be reasonable would depend on context. Would a distraction strike be appropriate on an elderly mental health patient? Far less likely to be than upon a strong, adult man in his late 20s who is more over-powering to the officer themselves. Context is everything; abstraction is meaningless.
Serious aggravated resistance – when things have reached this level and people are attempting to deliberate and seriously hurt others, police officers will not be thinking about anything other than using their equipment unless the threat occurs so suddenly that they are unable to access it in time: that is when officers may consider pushing people away, or if in close proximity to serious danger from the suspect, punching or kicking their way to safety before drawing their equipment to deal with the threat. The escalating order that they should consider use of equipment, sometimes known as ‘secondary control skills’ is:
- police baton
- firearms – the last two only being issued to certain officers.
A debate on taser has included people questioning whether it is in fact a more serious option than a baton. Batons can break bones and cause serious injury and whilst there is a debate about the controversy that taser represents, some argue it is safer and less likely to be injurous. Could you justify tasering a dementia patient? – well if he was a tall, strong adult man in his fifties who you’d already tried to handle with verbal and then physical control skills and failed, who had then thrown your only colleague across the room, hitting them off a wall, maybe it could be justified in law, however regrettable it may be morally. Contact is everything; abstraction is meaningless.
Deadly force – this is where any officer is going to want taser or more probably firearms officers to take the lead. Those of us who have had guns waved at us and knives drawn in close proximity whilst armed with an aluminium tube and a small tin of pepper know why. Even at this stage, officers having to manage the threat would still be thinking tactical options and just because guns may be justified, doesn’t mean that’s how things will be managed. I would advise you to read a previous blog about how I watched a firearms sergeant tackle an armed man with a police baton because he trusted his colleague to keep the situation ‘covered’ with a firearm whilst he de-armed the man without a shot being fired or any significant injury being caused to anyone.
I hope this explains the approach that the police take to how they should use force. Part 2 – coming soon! – will explain the translation of these ideas to mental health situations.
Update on 01st April 2015 – since writing this article, a new Code of Practice has come into effect in England. It doesn’t substantially alter the post but certain reference numbers have changed. My summary post about the new Code of Practice (2015) is here, the new Reference Guide is here and the full document is here. The Code of Practice (Wales) remains unchanged.
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