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March 14th 2016

Andrew Petherbridge

IPCC report into use of force by police officers highlights need for greater scrutiny

Andrew Petherbridge

Andrew Petherbridge

Legal Executive, Civil Liberties

IPCC report into use of force by police officers highlights need for greater scrutiny

By Andy Petherbridge, an expert in handling compensation claims against the police

By Andy Petherbridge, an expert in handling compensation claims against the police

A new report on the use of force by police officers has made for interesting reading today, highlighting a string of cases in recent years where officers have physically overstepped the mark when going about their duties.

The Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPPCC) says research has indicated that people think force is used more readily by officers than a decade ago.

Those who’d had direct experience said they believed officers were ‘more ready to use excessive force’ and that verbal communication was not attempted first, whilst also saying they lacked confidence in the complaints system.

As an expert handling claims against the police for misconduct, assault and wrongful arrest, the findings have not surprised me.

The IPCC’s ‘Police Use of Force’ study brought together evidence from complaints and investigations over a five-year period from 2009 to 2014, as well as examining public perception.

Over that time, 40 people died during or following the use of force, although not all were directly related, or a consequence of, the force used.

Shocking examples of police misconduct

The report has certainly highlighted some shocking examples of misconduct.

It includes details of an officer throwing hot water over a man in custody, and an officer committing assault and perjury when punching someone a number of times in the back as he held the victim down on the ground.

The report also highlighted how in one case, an officer received a final written warning for head-butting a child.

Other findings of the report included:

  • A high death rate when restraint equipment, such as leg straps and belts, was used, or when police used force in a hospital
  • People with mental health concerns being four times more likely to die than other people
  • Young people experiencing use of force were disproportionately likely to be of black and ethnic minority (BME) background

Representing victims of police misconduct

In my work for Hudgell Solicitors, I represent many people who are victims of police officers using excessive force.

Officers must always consider whether the use of “reasonable force” has a lawful objective and basis when making an arrest.

Situations when they may use more force include in self-defence, to defend another person, to prevent damage to property, and to prevent a crime and make an arrest.

The power to arrest should also only be used by police as a last resort, and there must be a lawful reason for making any arrest in the first place.  Any physical force used in the course of making an arrest must also be, necessary, reasonable and proportionate.

Interestingly, the report has highlighted that at present, there is no “standardised national practice for police forces to record all types of force used”.

Nor is there a requirement to retain video footage captured via body cameras, which are much more commonly used.

It has now been recommended that retaining footage from such cameras becomes standard practice in cases involving complaints or serious injury, and this certainly seems a sensible move.

Camera footage can prove vital in cases involving a complaint against the police, and we see an increasing number of clients who come to us already armed with evidence to support their case. It is often surprising, however, how often pieces of film footage cannot be located during investigations by forces themselves.

The IPCC is also calling for the creation of a national database to record the use of firearms, Tasers and other restraint techniques to identify concerns and improve public confidence. This is a must. It will bring greater transparency to the entire process of investigating complaints against the police.

Police officers must be held accountable

Dame Anne Owers, Chairman of the IPCC, concluded by saying all officers must be accountable for their use of force, particularly when it leads to death or serious injury.

She says police are not always “alert to when there ought to be concerns about the way force is being used”, and that is certainly a common factor in the cases we see.

Police officers are often under a lot of pressure, whether that be to handle difficult situations, or to meet targets and bring people in when crimes have been committed.

However, everybody has the right to be treated lawfully, fairly and with respect by the police, something this report has highlighted is not always the case.

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