A decorated Army veteran has spoken out about the need for police forces to better understand mental health issues after he was Tasered in Luton while suffering a flashback linked to his Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Law firm Irwin Mitchell has now secured him a £50,000 settlement from Bedfordshire Police, although the force has yet to apologise.
The man, referred to as Michael for legal reasons, served in the army for 18 years and reached the rank of corporal. He was posted to Northern Ireland and was injured by a hand grenade in Bosnia in 1991. He subsequently developed mental health issues including post-traumatic stress disorder.
In May 2014 Michael suffered a flashback in Luton and became disorientated and hid in bushes near the Luton and Dunstable Hospital, believing that he was back in the Army. His partner, known as Joanne for legal reasons, telephoned the police as she was concerned for his safety.
Officers arrived at the scene and told Michael that he either had to go with them to the hospital to be assessed or he would be taken to a police station. Michael, who was reluctant to go to the hospital, asked officers to let him go home but this was refused. Officers telephoned Michael’s mental health crisis team but were unable to get through.
Approximately one hour after arriving at the scene a police officer drew his Taser and aimed it at Michael, despite the absence of any indication that the Michael would try to escape or attack the officers.
Body worn video cameras carried by the officers recorded Michael asking the officer to put down the Taser so they could talk immediately before the weapon was discharged.
An expert in psychiatric trauma has confirmed that the use of the Taser significantly exacerbated Michael’s PTSD, to the extent that he became unable to leave his house and Joanne became his full time carer.
Bedfordshire Police subsequently investigated a complaint brought by Michael. A Taser expert employed by the force concluded that she was “unable to identify a rise, or change in the threat level to the public, the officers or the subject” prior to the Taser being fired, that “the situation appeared calm” and that it was “therefore somewhat of a surprise when the red dot from the Taser was seen pointing at [Michael]”.
Despite these findings Michael’s complaint was not upheld.
Michael then instructed public law experts at national law firm Irwin Mitchell, to represent him in a civil action against Bedfordshire Police arising from the use of the Taser.
Gus Silverman, a civil liberties expert at Irwin Mitchell, who represented Michael, said: “Clearly there are a number of serious concerns about the way Michael was dealt with by police.
“The footage from the police body cameras shows that before firing the Taser officers failed to take more than cursory steps to obtain the advice of mental health specialists, despite the fact that they were literally in the car park of a hospital. Most concerning of all is the use of a Taser on mentally ill individual who was asking officers to talk to him.”
“This appears to have been a case of officers using a Taser because they decided an hour was long enough for them to spend with Michael, as opposed to as a last resort.
“As the recent death of Dalian Atkinson has tragically illustrated, Tasers can be fatal. They must only be used where less dangerous options have first been considered and reasonably rejected.
“Better training for front line officers, and better systems for securing rapid support from mental health services, are necessary to ensure that my client’s experience is less likely to be repeated in future.
“We are glad to have secured a substantial settlement from Bedfordshire Police but the force has failed to apologise for their actions, despite being asked to do so on multiple occasions. My client hopes that the Chief Constable of Bedfordshire will reconsider his position and apologise so that Michael can start to put this distressing experience behind him.”
Michael said: “The psychological impact of being Tasered has been really hard to deal with. For a long time I was too terrified to leave my own home in case I saw the police again.
“I am pleased that the police have finally agreed to pay damages to reflect the harm they have done, but it is very difficult for me to understand why they haven’t apologised.
“What I needed from the police was patience and understanding. Instead they decided that they weren’t going to give me any more time even though I wanted to keep talking. The police need to be better trained and better supported by mental health services so they can respond appropriately to people in distress.”
Joanne said: “The officers who attended the scene that night knew that Michael was suffering from a flashback and had PTSD.
“After they were there for about an hour and had been talking with him they suddenly pulled out a Taser and fired it. He fell onto the floor straight away and lost consciousness.
“It was extremely frightening for me as I never expected the officers to do that to someone clearly suffering from a mental illness and who wasn’t a threat to anyone.
“The whole thing has been a nightmare for us and has caused Michael’s mental health issues to deteriorate and become harder to control. I have now become a full-time carer to him and we know he will need specialist help.
“We are glad a settlement has been reached with the police force, which will help us access the treatment my partner needs, but we are still waiting for some sort of apology for the pain and suffering this incident has caused us.”
A Beds Police spokesman said: “Following a complaint regarding this incident, which involved officers from the Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Hertfordshire Roads Policing Unit responding to a domestic incident involving alleged threats to kill in May 2014, the matter was referred to the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC).
“The IPCC decided not to pursue an independent investigation and referred the matter back to the Professional Standards Department of Bedfordshire Police to conduct a local investigation. Following a full investigation, including viewing body worn video the incident was captured on, it was found there was no case to answer with regards to the conduct of any of the officers.
“This incident was obviously very difficult for everyone involved and Bedfordshire Chief Constable Jon Boutcher will be making contact with the man affected in order to apologise for any anguish caused. Whilst not admitting liability, the force has tried to avoid any further distress to the man in question and decided to make him an offer which was accepted to conclude the civil claim. The settlement will be split between Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Hertfordshire police forces and was also made to avoid lengthy court proceedings at a higher cost to the taxpayer.
“Bedfordshire Police is acutely aware of issues regarding mental health and vulnerable people and has recently launched the Mental Health Street Triage, a multi-partner response, to attend incidents where someone is suffering a mental health crisis putting their, or others’, health at risk.
“Further to this, in line with national policy, officers carrying Taser are given specific training around vulnerability, this includes an enhanced awareness of some of the signs and symptoms of mental health, behavioural issues and certain other medical conditions and how to adapt the way they treat such individuals.
“Bedfordshire Police was recently graded as Good by the HMIC regarding officers’ use of Taser. The report found: ‘the force applies effective scrutiny of every deployment to check Taser is being used fairly. All operational officers in Bedfordshire are being equipped with body-worn video cameras, which support greater accountability in the use of stop and search and Taser. Overall, the use of stop and search and Taser by Bedfordshire Police is fair and appropriate’.”