It is a common feature of feedback to the police that we need to get better at “communication” and “de-escalation”. When one looks at incidents like the “Humberside Taser” incident or the “Manchester Handcuffs” incident, the importance of patience, prioritising dignity and using force “only as a last resort” are a regular features.
I have seen, including recently, some absolutely excellent examples of patient, communicative and supportive interventions by police officers, not predicated on the use of force. I have also seen examples where officers have been too quick to think of force as the method by which to resolve incidents involving high levels of resistance and violence. Let me give an example:
YOU MIGHT HAVE TO TASER HIM
I recall being asked to attend a medium secure unit some years ago to a patient who had assaulted staff and “torn the place apart”. Upon our arrival, it wasn’t hard to work out which way to head because there was a trail of physical destruction that took us to a room where the patient had barricaded himself in, although it had to be said this mainly consisted of posters ripped from notices boards.
Being a modern unit, it was fitted with anti-barricade doors so this wasn’t a problem, it was more a case of working out what the staff were asking us to do, how the MH staff and police would work together to achieve this and how to approach it all. MH staff said, – NB, not “asked”, but “said” – “we need you to restrain him and take him to the seclusion room so we can medicate him. You might have to taser him.”
We did have two taser officers present at the incident. Visual assessment of the patient in the room showed a highly agitated man, physically imposing and obviously very strong whose demeanour was concerning in terms of how we might keep people safe. One of the taser officers even had their equipment out of the holster, before we’d decided how to approach it.
The seclusion room was only a short distance away and there were just enough officers there to ensure that we could block access to other rooms and corridors so that the only natural method of moving anywhere was to go where the staff wanted him to be. Everything seemed geared up for a use of force and given two assaults on staff, who were injured enough to have got out of the situation completely, some level of physical intervention would have potentially been justified. So we prepared and I heard officers and staff talking about “red-dotting” him, which means pointing the Taser at him and focussing the red-dot to induce compliance with instructions amidst a direct threat of the equipment being used.
At this point I said, “Right, we’re going to ask you to open the door and we’re going to talk to him, put your taser out of sight. If that fails, we’ll escalate things, but not until.” So we got several officers out of view and opened the door, calmly and reassuringly asking, “Jimmy, can you come this way, mate?” And he did. He walked to the seclusion room and we never touched him. Staff then administered medication, again without the police touching him at all, although we were right there in close proximity in case when staff got near him his demeanour changed. Then we left having spoken to the assaulted staff to handle that appropriately.
No force used at all – despite everyone being inclined to think it would be needed: the lesson here is to ensure you try the least restrictive approach.
I think police officers are better at “de-escalation” than we give them credit for and that we think about officers needing de-escalation training because the training we do provide doesn’t normally use that particular term to describe or explain what we want them to do. De-escalation is a mental health related term, so the police mustn’t do it, right? Well, possibly.
Police personal safety training could be argued to encourage an approach to the use of force where officers go into a situation, using force above the level of threat to make sure it’s contained with minimal danger to the officers. But we all know that “tactical communications” is a golden thread running through all police use of force. In one training scenario I had during annual refresher training, the use of force was considered a fail, because the situation had been designed to mean that officers with sufficient persuasive communication skills would resolve it without force. I asked the trainers about this and the vast majority of people be tested on that situation recognised this fact and passed. And this was against three days of training using batons, handcuffs and CS spray where instinct tells you that all you’re preparing yourself for in assessments is that you can show lawful, effective use of your equipment.
We all know that there are some police officers (and some mental health professionals!) who can wind up almost anyone without trying hard, but I also know some police officers that could sell snow to Eskimos. Far more of them, in fact.
So I’ve always thought the police are good at de-escalation generally speaking and when they put their minds to it, as above. I’ve also seen mental health professionals call for the police to use force and officers have declined, resolving difficult situations without any force at all, as above. This is not an argument that the police are always spot on, although I do receive feedback from mental health professionals of officers attending wards or MHA assessments in the community and being persuasive and patient, avoiding a need for restraint. It must be said, I’ve also seen paramedics, mental health nurses and AMHPs doing likewise during assessments or in police custody.
In this time of resources being somewhat scarce in all organisations, it is worth remembering that most professionals in out health and emergency services were selected for the task because the recruiting processes they succeed in and the training systems they were put through, thought they had the skills to be patient, responsible professionals, capable of judging these issues. Although culturally organisations may differ, they may call things by different names, most of us are trying to do the same thing so the issue is not so much about whether it is “the police” or “mental health nurses” who need more or better training, it will inevitably be that some professionals in all of these organisations need to remember to get that extra, patient mile in avoiding the use of force.
And you can call that whatever you want!
Winner of the Mind Digital Media Award.