Today has seen media coverage about Taser use after Freedom of Information applications by the Justice Gap: it takes us again into the difficult and extremely sensitive debate about the use of this controversial item and makes us focus more specifically on the complex area of mental vulnerability. As ever, there is stuff to note and debate here, along with some fairly standard myths that come out every time electro-conductive devices are mentioned. Others who know more about Taser (other electro-conductive devices are available) will probably end up making more detailed points in coming days, but it should be pointed out that many police forces have expanded their distribution of this equipment during this five year period. With more officers carrying it, I suspect it would be unsurprising if it were not used more frequently.
You may remember the case in London in 2011 of Christopher HAUGHTON? – this incident involved unarmed officers being attacked and seriously injured by a man with a large knife who was acutely mentally unwell. It was the catalyst for the Metropolitan Police to provide these devices to some officers on 999 response teams, not just to specialist firearms or public order units. That decision in just one police area, bearing in mind it is by far the largest force, represented a significant expansion of Taser nationally. Most forces have also expanded their roll-out to response teams, including my own, West Midlands Police. There are simply far more officers carrying these things than was the case prior to 2010 when national reporting of usage first began.
So what I’m about to argue here is not really about Taser – it’s about understanding the language that is used to build an argument that suits; to make statistics say whatever you’d prefer them to say; and as ever, it’s an argument for better understanding of what we’re actually trying to achieve with better data on which to then properly evaluate policing interventions. Already, media coverage is teling us that two-thirds of people ‘tasered’ are ‘mentally ill’ – but what does that actually mean?! … I admit that I don’t think it’s right.
These headlines on this occasion put today’s coverage firmly in my territory: a “majority of suspects Tasered are mentally ill” wrote the Independent. Here are some of the headline facts for you following analysis of the figures from 2010 to 2014 (2015 figures will appear next year) –
- Taser incidents up from 6,238 to 9,196 over that five-year period.
- Taser incidents involving people thought to be ‘mentally ill’ up from 2,737 4,200 in same period – a proportionate increase, given the overall rise.
- 45% of all Taser incidents involve someone who was ‘mentally ill’.
- 67% of all Tasers being discharged (ie, fired) involve someone who was ‘mentally ill’.
- There is a significant disparity per capita, in police forces’ use and discharge of Taser.
In other words, where Taser officers deploy to incidents, they usually don’t use these devices at all – they remain holstered, although often visible because they are bright yellow. Where the devices are drawn, they are not discharged (approximately) 75% of the time and when they are discharged it is with regard to someone the officer believes to be mentally ill or psychologically disturbed 67% of the time. (Figures not in the article suggest that if you look at the number of Taser equipped officers in the UK versus deployment and discharges, they’re using it a few times a year, at most – and even then, they are mostly not discharging it after threatening its use.) So we need to get away from the argument that even this reported most recent increase represents very frequent and casual resort to this kind of force being used on the public, irrespective of whether they are perceived to have a mental health problem.
Deployment of Taser remains rare.
First of all, let’s get some of the problems out of the way about what some of the terms used in the article actually mean: it’s often a source of confusion and it often appears to influence the type of reaction to what these statistics actually mean! —
- Taser incidents or someone who is tasered – this means any incident where a Taser is removed from its holster, promoting the obligation on the officer to complete the document which forms the basis of the statistics being analysed here. So it doesn’t just mean those situations where the Taser is discharged with the electric barbs deployed. It could just involve the officer making the device available for quick use if needed; being pointed at someone with a verbal warning or ‘red-dotted’ on someone where use is imminent. Although I can’t see the figure in the article above, Taser was discharged around 25% of the time, compared to its overall ‘use’ by being drawn, aimed or targeted.
- Mentally ill or someone with a mental illness – for the purposes of the document that gives rise to the statistics, this means someone who is thought by the police officer with the Taser to be mentally ill or psychologically disturbed at the time of the incident. In 25% of those assessments, the officers are known to have been influenced by outside information or context; in 75% of cases, it was based purely their own judgement. You can see the problem here! – if an officer threatens use of a Taser as part of a Mental Health Act assessment organised by an AMHP, that’s one thing; if it occurred during a police-led intervention under s136 MHA, that’s quite another!
It’s perfectly conceivable that police officers both under-identify and over-identify ‘mental illness’ – and that the broad definition they would naturally apply, not being mental health professionals themselves, is not the same framework that would be applied by a consultant psychiatrist or mental health nurse. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to us! Imagine an officer detaining someone under s136 of the Act because they appear psychotic at the point of encounter, who is subsequently assessed by an AMHP and two doctors, including a psychiatrist, and then admitted to hospital under s2 MHA: are they ‘mentally ill’? … I’d say so! But what if, three or four days after admission, all the cannabis they had consumed has ceased to have its original impact on their cognitive functioning and they are discharged because they have no underlying mental health problems? Are they ‘mentally ill’?… no, but they were psychologically affected by the temporary effects of the drugs. I can think of many cases where this has been the case and not just involving cannabis, but also legal highs and over-the-counter medications of various sorts. If a Taser had been involved in such a detention it would contribute to the overall statistics where, in fact, no mental illness was involved. We don’t follow up Taser incidents to determine whether professionals agree with that assessment.
But are such individuals ‘mentally ill’? Definitions here are key to understanding reality because even within mental health professions that term means different things. Only this week I heard a mental health nurse distinguish between mental illness from personality disorder, so this stuff really matters!
USE OF FORCE
I’ve written elsewhere about the police use of force, in terms of how officers make decisions in accordance with national guidance and standards. Electroconductive devices is just one part of an overall approach that attempts to ensure officers are trained and equipped to make the appropriate decision in a given situation, but there’s a caveat to this remark! In the debate about Taser, we see comments that they are never appropriate in a situation where someone is in mental health crisis. The Independent’s article devotes considerable coverage to the case of Cornelius THOMAS from Birmingham. Mr THOMAS was repeatedly the subject of taser being discharged by West Midlands Police during a Mental Health Act incident in 2011 and brought legal action against them. Last month, an out-of-court sum was paid in settlement of his claim but perhaps crucially, the settlement involved no admission of liability by the force who brought no disciplinary proceedings against the officers involved after insisting the use of Taser was proportionate and reasonable in the circumstances. As the case did not reach court, it’s difficult to know what to think*.
That said, no mention was made by the Independent of incidents where the police use of Taser was found to be reasonable and proportionate. Arlindo FURTADO died in 2014 from a self-inflicted knife injury to his neck after a two-hour stand-off with officers who had attended his home to arrest him after an allegation was made against him. Officers discharged a Taser as he started to injure himself and in an effort to prevent him from inflicting a fatal injury. Alas, they were not successful but imagine if they had not attempted to do so, or had tried other methods and / or been injured themselves? If you’re not going to Taser someone who is opening up their own neck with a large knife, you can try to stop them with manual restraint; by using incapacitant sprays; by using a police baton or by shooting them with a firearm. Manual handling puts you in to the territory of being proximate to the knife; incapacitant sprays do not always work and are unrealistic in an enclosed environment; and hitting someone with a police baton has the potential to inflict even greater injury with less ability to ensure the outcome you’re hoping to achieve. We needn’t describe the obvious futility in shooting someone to stop them taking their own life.
Finally of course, this debate always manages to lapse in to the more general problems in mental health and criminal law: we see the set up of false dichotomy between ‘those in mental health crisis’ and ‘those who are offending’. As I’ve repeatedly pointed out, some people are in both categories and for evidence of this you need look no further than the recent incident at Leytonstone tube station – a man whose family had hoped he could be sectioned for his own welfare, who was criminally charged with attempted murder and the courts then ensured he would be assessed under the Mental Health Act whilst remanded. We don’t yet know how that case will play out but if you remember that not dissimilar case of Christopher HAUGHTON in 2011, he was acutely unwell when he stabbed Metropolitan Police officers. Despite being so unwell as to reach the threshold of being detained under the Mental Health Act, he was fully convicted of the offence before being sentenced to a hospital order. We need to be careful about over-simplistic distinctions!
I can only repeat the point: if we are asking untrained police officers to make a snapshot judgement of whether or not someone is mentally ill, we shouldn’t be surprised to find a load of instances where it turns out the officers were wrong. We know that when officers make decisions about their use of s136 of the Mental Health Act, they are often found to be wrong – anywhere between 20% and 50% of the time. We would be wise to question these data just as closely, if not more so.
*For the record and because I am a West Midlands Police officer: I know nothing of Mr THOMAS’s particular case beyond what I have read in the media coverage of it: I was not involved in it in any way.
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