Police use force disproportionately against black people in England and Wales, figures suggest

Senior officer says police 'use the absolute minimum amount of force to resolve a situation'

Lizzie Dearden
Home Affairs Correspondent
Friday 14 December 2018 00:33 GMT
Most recorded use of force incidents involved restraint, mainly using handcuffs
Most recorded use of force incidents involved restraint, mainly using handcuffs

Police are using force disproportionately against black people in England and Wales, statistics released for the first time suggest.

Figures released by the Home Office showed that 12 per cent of incidents involving the use of force that were recorded by police were against black people, who make up only 3.3 per cent of the population.

Black people were involved in proportionally more incidents that involved armed police using guns, at 26 per cent, and 20 per cent of people involved in Taser incidents were black in 2017-18.

White people, who constitute 86 per cent of the population in England and Wales, experienced under three-quarters of use-of-force incidents.

They were also proportionately less likely to be subjected to use of firearms, at 51 per cent or Tasers, at 67 per cent.

Deputy Assistant Commissioner Matt Twist, of the National Police Chiefs' Council (NPCC), said that although the statistics were in their infancy and did not show “a complete picture”, they reflected a wider issue.

“It's something we're aware of,” he added. "As data quality improves it will be the responsibility of police forces to explain why there were disparities ... in use of force, and to act on any issues identified."

Mr Twist said officers make operational assessments to use the “absolute minimum amount of force to resolve a situation”, adding: “They are also using force as you would expect them to, in situations such as arrest or restraint to protect others.”

Around 313 incidents where police officers used force on a person were recorded in the year, with handcuffing and other forms of restraint being the most common type.

Other types of force were “unarmed skills”, ground restraint, improvised, limb or body restraints, spit hoods, dogs, batons and shields.

Met police forcibly restrain black man after stop and search as he screams 'I can't breathe'

Taser use was recorded 17,000 times, irritant spray 14,000 times, firearms 3,100 times and rubber bullets 530 times.

The most common reason force was used by an officer was to protect themselves or other officers, as well as effecting an arrest or preventing suspects escaping.

The most prevalent “impact factor” recorded was the influence of alcohol – seen in 127,000 incidents, followed by drugs and the “size/gender/build” of subjects.

The vast majority of incidents – 203,000 – ended with the subject being arrested, 12,000 saw someone detained under the Mental Health Act, and 11,000 ended with someone being hospitalised.

People perceived as having a mental disability accounted for 13 per cent of incidents, but they experienced proportionately less police use of firearms.

Mr Twist said the use of force against mentally ill people arose from the police service’s growing role as a first responder in mental health-related incidents.

"A significant number of people we deal with do have mental health issues and interacting with people in mental health crisis has grown significantly in recent years,” he added.

"It's fair to say that in some cases force is needed to protect the person, the public or the officers when dealing with people in mental health crisis, or having mental health problems.

“The data is reflective of what we all know - that mental health is a significant issue in the criminal justice system.”

Deborah Coles, director of the Inquest charity, said the statistics on wider use of force show the need for investment in frontline drug, alcohol and mental health services.

“Officers report most commonly using force not because of prior knowledge or possession of a weapon, but because of alcohol and drugs, the ‘size, gender or build’ of the subject, or mental ill health,” she added.

“These figures beg questions about discriminatory assumptions and attitudes towards certain groups of people.”

The vast majority of subjects were male and aged between 18 and 34, although use of force incidents involving children were also recorded, including 19 with under-11s.

In around 6 per cent of incidents subjects were injured, with the vast majority being minor, and in 6 per cent officers were also injured.

Officials cautioned that as it was the first year where police have been required to record data on the use of force, practices vary dramatically across the country and the statistics are being treated as “experimental”.

“These statistics do not represent all police use of force incidents in England and Wales for 2017-18, as not all incidents were recorded,” a Home Office document said.

“These figures give us an initial view of police use of force, but it is expected the numbers may increase in future years as recording improves.”

The NPCC said the data is intended to hold police forces to account, and to give the public greater information on the different types of force used and how it is used.

“Police are charged with maintaining order and keeping people safe. In fulfilling those duties, they will sometimes need to use force on behalf of the state to protect the public and themselves from harm,” Mr Twist added.

“These statistics show that when force is used, it is mostly low level, and done to protect those who pose a threat to themselves, officers or others.”

An independent review of deaths police custody by Dame Elish Angiolini QC, which was published last year, made a series of recommendations on the use of restraint and said officers must understand that it could cause death.

On Wednesday, the policing minister said the government has made “good progress” delivering a programme of reforms and strengthened the role of the Independent Office for Police Conduct.

“Every death in police custody is a tragedy,” Nick Hurd added. “The impact is devastating on their loved ones. Dame Elish’s report has been a catalyst for change and I am determined that we sustain momentum in addressing the difficult issues at hand.”

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