“You’re brave, coming into the lion’s den,” said the Police Federation representative. “I know,” I replied, “but it’s worth it.”
This was one of the conversations I had at the Police Federation Post Incident Procedure conference on 15-16 October. There I met police officers, representatives of the Independent Office for Police Conduct, medical experts, lawyers, and others.
I was never going to win a popularity award at the conference. Some of the delegates might consider me “the enemy” because I am a solicitor who represents victims of police misconduct in their civil actions against the police. I was not paid for being there. I travelled down to Leicestershire the night before to make sure I could attend. I missed a day’s work, coaching my under-9s football team, and time away from my young family. So why did I go?
Police Federation Conference Panel
Che Donald, the outgoing Vice-Chair of the Police Federation of England and Wales (PFEW), invited me to appear at the conference. He contacted me because Sgt Donald and I have sparred in the media over the police’s use of spit hoods. (He’s supportive of their use. I’m concerned by their unchecked roll-out, as you can tell from my earlier blog posts.)
This PFEW conference focused on post-incident procedures. These are the rules the police must follow after a death or serious injury. I joined a panel discussing police restraint procedures. Members included:
- Dr Meng Aw-Yong, a Forensic Medical Examiner and President of the British Academy of Forensic Science
- Deputy Assistant Commissioner Matt Twist, lead for the National Police Chiefs Council on Self Defence, Arrest and Restraint
- Catherine Hall, Operations Manager for the Independent Office for Police Misconduct
- Colin Banham, a barrister who represents police officers in gross misconduct hearings
As you can tell, the panel leaned heavily in favour of the police. I was outnumbered. Despite this, I was treated respectfully and well during the hour-long discussion. It was unscripted, save for questions from the moderator, Phil Matthews.
Police Restraint Panel Discussion
The audience asked probing questions and brought out some useful points about restraint. These included:
- The potential benefits of a “fit bit” type device which was unveiled at the conference. The wearable device is designed to track a detainee’s vital signs and reduce the risk of death in custody. On first impressions, the benefits to detainees, police officers, the IOPC, and wider communities appear clear.
- A controversial suggestion that police officers use Tasers more readily on some people to prevent further harm. (For example, those suffering from a mental health crisis.) I disagreed with this idea. I am used to dealing with victims of Taser assaults who suffer serious physical and psychological injuries. Police often use Tasers with other forms of restraint, such as spit hoods. This makes matters worse. I commented that injuries could be avoided if the police used proper de-escalation techniques and involved medical professionals first. The Taser “stun-gun” is a potentially lethal weapon. Police should only use it as a last resort.
- An audience-members’ view that the police were treated as a “cash cow”. He questioned why the police get sued when others, such as the ambulance service, do not. I explained that his perception was incorrect. In practice, solicitors involved in these cases hold all appropriate organisations to account. No one is above the law, and laws are there to be followed.
- The issue of police training. The panel agreed that budget cuts could impact on the amount and quality of training. This could result in serious injuries and even deaths in custody. But more, and better, training is only one side of the equation. I stressed that, even with the best training in the world, it is down to the individual officer to apply that training properly.
- I asked the police officers present to remember that the detainee is a person first and a suspect second. With that mindset, they would be more likely to take appropriate action. This benefits the detainee and the police.
All too often we exist in our own bubbles. The panel debate meant that the Police Federation audience heard all sides about current police restraint issues. My input helped the police understand the perspective of misconduct victims and their solicitors. And I got to hear their views, which will benefit me and my clients. I stand up for police misconduct victims in my role as a solicitor. I am glad I went to the conference to speak on their behalf.
Kevin Donoghue is the solicitor director of Donoghue Solicitors.