Too much police force? 'Policing by coercion'?

CS gas and long-handled batons are new weaponry designed to protect officers. Paul Donovan asks whether they have been sufficiently tested
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The Independent Online
Who is protecting whom? The recent publicity concerning two incidents in Middlesbrough, where CS incapacitant spray was used to separate a baby from its mother and against children in a home, has brought into question the way in which the police are using increasingly lethal weaponry.

The incidents occurred in May, just two months into the trial period for the use of the spray. The six-month trial began on 1 March and involved 3,800 officers in 16 forces across the country.

There had been a number of problems involving CS spray prior to approval being given for street trials on the public. The trials had been due to start in July 1995, but after an incident involving a police officer who suffered burns to his eyes the tests were suspended by the Association of Chief Police Officers' Self Defence Arrest and Restraint Committee.

On 4 January 1996, an ACPO document circulated to police forces declared that there were two options: "First, to await a new product with a 'safe' solvent ... second, to go ahead with the trials using the CS with [the solvent] MIBK, as presently held by forces, in the knowledge of the possible health risks that have been identified". The Home Office chose the second option - and two weeks after the spray went on to the streets a man was dead.

Ibrahima Sey was arrested by Forest Gate police officers and taken to Ilford police station. It is alleged that Mr Sey was then handcuffed and while surrounded by police officers was restrained using the CS spray. He later died from "hyperintensive heart disease".

On 26 March there was trouble outside a Wirral nightclub. Police were called and, it is claimed, in the ensuing disturbance a police officer was knocked unconscious. The party visiting the nightclub were returned to their coach, the doors were closed and CS spray was discharged. Barry Sherman, Labour MP for Huddersfield, says: "It was my understanding that the police have very strict guidelines during the test period about the circumstances in which CS spray can be used. I would be astonished if discharging it into a confined space ... is in accordance with those guidelines."

The civil rights organisation Liberty has highlighted how all of these incidents are inconsistent with ACPO's own guidelines on the use of the spray. These state that the spray is issued "primarily for self-defence", "to provide officers with a tactical advantage in a violent encounter", and is "primarily designed for dealing with violent subjects who cannot be restrained".

On 21 August, despite the visible evidence of serious misuse of the CS spray during the trial period, the Home Secretary, Michael Howard, gave the go-ahead for its deployment with all forces. Labour MP Harry Cohen says: "The CS spray has been trialled on the public. There has been gross irresponsibility in not assessing this trial period properly."

An illustration of what happens when lethal weaponry is issued in an uncontrolled way can be seen from a review of the recent history of the new, US-style, long baton, made available to police forces in June 1994 - after a one-year trial.

In October 1994, the Criminal Justice Bill demonstration in Hyde Park provided the first major public order situation where the new, longer batons were to be deployed. While the new batons are not supposed to be used against the head, the figures for injuries in Hyde Park suggest a police force out of control.

The Police Complaints Authority annual report refers to their subsequent inquiry, which involved 23 complaints of assault by police officers. "Of these, 20 involved the alleged misuse of the newly issued long batons and 18 related to head injuries," the report said.

The finding of the PCA investigation raised many questions regarding the use of the new baton, the secretive trial period and the training police officers had received. Unfortunately further incidents were to follow Hyde Park.

On 3 May 1995, Brian Douglas was restrained by police officers using long-handled batons. As a result of being struck on the head he suffered "massive and irreversible brain damage" from which he later died. A leading neuro-surgery professor, John Pickard, speaking at the inquest, likened the injuries to those caused by "knobkerries, formidable weapons made of heavy wood ... which are used in South Africa". Coroner Sir Montague Levine, questioned the training of the officers concerned: "There is a need for all officers who have been trained to use a baton to be taught the specific dangers, the after-effects and potential signs and symptoms that can follow a baton blow to the head. "

While Brian Douglas was lying in a St Thomas's hospital bed, another victim of the baton-wielding police of south London was being brought in for treatment.

On 5 May 1995, while leaving the LWT studios on the South Bank after participating in the Richard Littlejohn show, a group of anti-M11 protesters were met by police dispatched from Kennington police station.

Zoe Chater recalled being greeted by police with drawn batons. She went to help a friend who was being held on the ground by police, and was struck by the batons. "There were two policemen who hit me - one of them whacked me on the head". She was taken to St Thomas's, where she was released the next day wearing a neck brace. A Scotland Yard spokesman confirmed that: "Police were called to LWT studios. They were met by a large group of people who disbanded when requested to do so by police."

After the Douglas and Chater incidents, Harry Cohen wrote to the Home Secretary asking for a full public inquiry and expressing "extreme concern" at the "excessive, disproportionate and unnecessary damage" that the new baton can inflict. There was no response.

Another death occurred in December, when Wayne Douglas, 25, was arrested in Brixton for allegedly committing an aggravated burglary. After a chase, the police claimed that "to protect themselves officers used long handled batons to disarm him of the large kitchen knife he was carrying". Mr Douglas later died of a heart attack.

The police defend the use of CS spray and batons as reducing the injuries caused to police officers. After the Brian Douglas inquest, superintendent John Rees from Vauxhall police station claimed that between 1994 and 1995 3,700 police officers were injured. He continued: "Since the introduction of the officer safety training package, of which the batons are an aspect, that number of injuries has been reduced to around 3,100.

The Police Complaints Authority appears sceptical. The latest annual report says: "The design of the new batons also means that they can inflict more serious injuries. The Authority is well aware of this risk and is closely monitoring baton-related complaints."

John Alderson, former Chief Constable of Devon and Cornwall, has warned of the ratchet effect of increasing police weaponry. He claims: "The police have changed from being the police of the people to being the police of the government."

Liz Parratt of Liberty also sees in the use of CS spray "a move away from our tradition of policing by consent rather than by coercion". She said: "In the long term, this trend will continue to undermine the public co-operation, trust and confidence on which the police rely".

Operation Justice, a new campaigning group supported by Liberty, Inquest and some 40 MPs, has called for the immediate withdrawal of both long- handled batons and CS incapacitant spray. Harry Cohen, a founder member of Operation Justice, is angry about the lack of parliamentary scrutiny of the use of CS gas and the new batons on the public. He accuses the Government of being "irresponsible in not assessing the trialling period of both weapons properly".

Surely the time has come for a reassesment and, as Harry Cohen has suggested, a full public inquiry into the use of such lethal weaponry in the community.