A system to better record police use of force is necessary to identify concerns and restore public confidence, the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) has warned.
In a report released today (March 8, 2016), the IPCC revealed people today believe officers use force far more readily than they did ten years ago.
But although it accepted force is a necessary part of the police’s role, the IPCC was critical of the fact that no service exists to provide “a definitive national picture” as to how it is used.
Both the public and police stakeholders were also concerned, as they felt it was important to record and monitor the circumstances and frequency of use of force.
IPCC chair Dame Anne Owers said: “People understand and expect that our police officers should have the power to use force when it is necessary to protect the public.
“However, officers must be accountable for their use of force, particularly when it leads to death or serious injury.
Partly, this is done through investigations of serious incidents but a significant part of accountability is ensuring that the police consistently collect, analyse and publish data about how and when force is used.
This allows areas of concern to be identified. It can also improve public confidence, by providing factual information to communities.”
Police suggested this could be incorporated into existing systems like the custody record, and that remote electronic recording devices could be introduced to make the process more flexible.
The number of complaints the IPCC received about use of force rose from 5,991 to 6,261 between 2012/13 and 2013/14, although its proportion of all allegations fell from 11 to ten per cent.
Most (85 per cent) complaints were made against male officers, and in cases where ethnicity was known, 95 per cent against white officers.
Outside of London, the largest number of complaints (496) was made against Greater Manchester Police (GMP).
Durham Constabulary received the least.
Complaints about use of force that are investigated by the police were also found to be much less likely to be upheld than other kinds.
However, appeals to the IPCC were five per cent more likely to be upheld than appeals involving other issues.
In more than a fifth of cases, forces were directed to substitute the findings of their own investigations with those of the IPCC.
According to the IPCC, 83 per cent of people trust the police to use force responsibly.
But this figure drops to 76 per cent among responders from black and minority ethnic (BME) communities, and 71 per cent among younger people.
Black respondents in particular reported low levels of trust at just 61 per cent, but this may have been influenced by the fact that a higher proportion of BME people live in London than anywhere else, where the trust level was just 69 per cent.
More than half of under-18s whose cases were investigated came from BME communities, and they were more likely to be younger than non-BME complainants.
Only one in four people reported being concerned about the frequency with which force was used, but this rose to 32 per cent among BME groups.
Among black respondents, this was as high as 45 per cent.
The IPCC believes this could be addressed by providing more accurate information on areas such as police use of firearms.
This is a common feeling: all groups felt that clear communication between police and the public is vital, and identified understanding of body language, language barriers and cultural differences as issues that need addressing.
The report also found that people want to know more about “what proper use of force looks like”, so they can better understand when they need to complain.
Police generally agreed with this sentiment – according to the IPCC, officers feel that the public “are not always able to appreciate the context of situations and threats they face, which determine the type or level of force”.
Use of force in complaints, referrals and appeals
Physical holds were the most common type of force reported in complaints, and were used against 117 people.
This was followed by physical strikes (101) and Taser (52).
Young people were particularly over-represented in Taser use situations, making up 42 per cent of the total.
Black people were four times more likely than white people to have Taser used on them, and mental health was a factor in 53 per cent of cases.
Two in three cases also involved alcohol or drugs – almost a quarter of people were under the influence of drugs when officers used force against them, and 44 per cent had consumed alcohol.
However, drugs and alcohol were much less prevalent when dogs were used to restrain people.
Just one of the 20 restraint equipment cases involved an emergency response belt, and the other 19 used leg straps.
A quarter of people who had restraint equipment used on them came from BME backgrounds, 12 were under the influence of intoxicants, and 13 had a mental health concern.
Use of force in IPCC investigations
The report also looked at how weapons had been used in 191 cases investigated by the IPCC across a five-year period.
More than a quarter of these involved police reacting spontaneously to something they had seen, and 15 per cent took place already within the custody environment.
However, when police were directly called to the scene, the odds of Taser being used increased.
One in three people who had Taser used against them had mental health concerns, and six of these cases saw multiple deployments. One had the weapon used against them 11 times.
A quarter of subjects came from BME backgrounds, and 44 per cent were armed.
However, the IPCC said these deployments may not have always been justified – it was common for “not enough” information to be found “before authorising the use of a Taser”.
Concern was also raised over the length of time the devices were used for, which averaged 11 seconds.
Batons were used against 40 people, but when the subject had mental health concerns, the chance of use was significantly reduced.
Firearms were used 25 times, and restraint equipment 22 times.
Seventeen per cent of all subjects were killed, including half of all people who had restraint equipment used on them.
Nearly a third received minor injuries from these uses of force, and similar numbers received serious injuries.
These investigations led to 18 officers being subject to criminal proceedings, five of whom had their convictions overturned or sentences reduced.
One officer – who threw hot water over a man in custody – received a three-year prison sentence, and a further nine were dismissed.
One in five people involved in the IPCC’s investigation were known to have mental health concerns, and they were four times more likely to die after force had been used than anybody else.
More than half of respondents felt that police did not understand their issues or offer appropriate care and support, and that a lack of understanding around ‘hidden conditions’, such as autism, meant some situations escalated more quickly than was necessary.
The report said: “They were much more likely to be restrained, to experience multiple uses of force, and to be subject to force in a custody environment.”
Dame Anne added: “Not only do police need training in recognising and communicating with people in mental health crisis, but there is an urgent need to invest in appropriate mental health services to prevent such crises or manage people through them.”
Improving the situation
According to Tony Lloyd, interim Mayor and police and crime commissioner for Greater Manchester, work is already being done to implement the suggested changes to recording.
Mr Lloyd said: “”This is a welcome report that has found that there are inconsistencies in how police forces across the UK record how, when and why officers have had to use force and this is reflected in the public’s perception.
“These inconsistencies must be addressed if we are to truly hold the police to account and build public confidence, particularly amongst young people and people from BME communities.
“That’s why I back the IPCC’s call for a proper system to be put in place to ensure police officers are doing their job properly and their use of force is proportionate.
“In Greater Manchester, for example, this issue is already being addressed within custody to ensure that all use of force against detainees is recorded consistently and transparently.
“I will continue to work with the chief constable to consider the recommendations in this report and make improvements in how officers right across GMP use force.”
Published: 8 March 2016
Author: Adam Button for Police Professional