Police using CS spray to make 'easy' arrests

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MIDDLE-AGED police officers are using CS spray to make "easy" arrests rather than going to the effort of normal restraint methods, the head of the Police Complaints Authority has warned.

Peter Moorhouse, chairman of the PCA, has also spoken out against the use of CS sprays to incapacitate mental patients, despite Home Office and chief constables' backing for the practice. He said he would no sooner squirt it at a mental patient than a child or an old person.

There is growing unrest about the widespread use of CS sprays and an increasing number of people are suing the police, claiming they have misused the sprays.

Mr Moorhouse, in an interview with The Independent, said: "I'm afraid that ... there's a tendency for it [CS spray] to be used to ensure an easy arrest, and that's worrying. You can see the temptation - if I'm a middle- aged officer who is a bit worried about his abilities to handle a situation, the temptation is to pull out the CS spray and use it at an early stage so that I don't have any trouble.

"We are concerned that there is evidence that would suggest that it's being used more often than it need be." He said that he regretted the "growing outcry" from the public about excessive use. The PCA, which oversees investigations into public complaints against the police, dealt with 254 CS spray-related cases in the year up to March 1998.

The hand-held CS spray has been increasingly used by police to quell disturbances. An estimated 100,000 officers now have the spray nationally.

Mr Moorhouse said he was worried that it was being used in unsuitable places, such as confined spaces and that victims were not being treated quickly enough. The use of CS spray against the mentally ill has caused particular controversy with health professionals and civil liberty groups urging the police to stop using the spray on psychiatric patients. This followed a survey that showed more than one-third of NHS mental health trusts had treated people sprayed by police. Lord Williams of Mostyn, a Home Office minister, and the Association of Chief Police Officers last week defended the use of CS against mentally ill.

However Mr Moorhouse said: "It does not sit comfortably with the normal members of the public that CS spray is being used on people who are temporarily or permanently disadvantaged. No more would you want to see CS spray used on old people or children. It seems an unsuitable weapon to be used in mental hospitals."

A PCA inquiry has found that police used CS spray on a 26-year-old mentally ill man shortly before he was found dead in the attic of his home.

CS incapacitates victims, causing intense pain, especially around the eyes and can cause blistering and affect breathing. High levels have also been linked to heart attacks. There are additional risks if the person affected suffers asthma or other breathing problems, is taking medication, and is also restrained.