Revealed: Surge in police use of force during height of lockdown

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Police in England and Wales used force 12.5% more from April to June than the three previous months

Reports Mirren Gidda, Liberty Investigates journalist

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Police deployed force against members of the public on average 12.5% more during lockdown than in the previous three months, despite a drop in crime rates.

There were 163,749 recorded instances of use of force from April to June compared with 145,543 from January to March – a difference of 18,206 – according to data obtained by Liberty Investigates from 32 constabularies in England and Wales by freedom of information requests.

Crime rates plummeted by an estimated 19% in the same three months, according to the Telephone-operated Crime Survey for England and Wales (TCSEW), as people spent more time at home.

Police officers can legally use force to prevent injury to themselves or others, arrest suspects, prevent crime and protect property – provided it is necessary, proportionate and reasonable. Approved techniques include restraints, handcuffing, baton strikes, dog bites, irritant sprays and Tasers.

21

constabularies use of force more often during lockdown

Increases in use of force were recorded by 21 constabularies, with the largest percentage surge seen in West Yorkshire. There, officers deployed force on 11,290 occasions from April to June compared with 7,582 times in January to March – a rise of 49%.

The biggest spike in number of incidents was registered by the Metropolitan Police, the UK’s largest constabulary, whose officers used force 59,692 times from April to June compared with 50,010 from January to March – a rise of 9,682 instances of use of force (19%).

Analysis showed there was no one use of force technique that accounted for the overall rise. Nor was the rise dependent on police force size. Although some of the largest English and Welsh police forces – such as the Metropolitan and Greater Manchester – saw significant increases, so too did the smaller forces of Humberside and Wiltshire, recording increases of 32% and 33% respectively.

Some constabularies include “tactical communications” – where officers address an individual prior to using force – in their use of force figures, but these were excluded from Liberty Investigates’ analysis.

The spike in forceful tactics has left watchdog organisations troubled. Deborah Coles, director of the charity INQUEST, which investigates state-related deaths, said: “These are alarming figures … Emergency powers have only exacerbated unfair, excessive, and discriminatory policing, especially against racialised communities. We know all too well this can lead to deaths and serious injuries.”

Emergency powers have only exacerbated unfair, excessive, and discriminatory policing, especially against racialised communities

Deborah Coles, INQUEST

Black and minority ethnic people were overrepresented in the data obtained by Liberty Investigates, reflecting longstanding patterns in recorded uses of force by police.

38%

of the Met's use of force was against Black people, who make up 13% of London's population

Of the 13 forces which saw an increased use of force during lockdown and which provided Liberty Investigates with ethnicity data by subject, 11 showed greater use of force against BAME people than was proportionate. In London, 38% of the Met’s uses of force from April to June were against Black people, despite the fact this demographic makes up only 13% of the capital’s population.

One of these people was Kai Cummins, 20. In a formal complaint submitted by his lawyer to the Met, the student claims that officers subjected him to four different instances of force.

On 4 May, Cummins – then 19 –  was pepper-sprayed, placed in a ground restraint, handcuffed and held in an arm lock after police mistakenly identified him as the driver of a stolen car which crashed in South London, according to the complaint.

The ordeal unfolded after Cummins heard a loud bang while walking near his home in Croydon and headed to the scene of the crash. When police arrived, their attention turned to Cummins, he claims.

“Immediately they started launching accusations of, ‘Were you in that car?’ ” said Cummins. According to him, he turned to walk away when a female officer grabbed him by the jacket. He shrugged her off but then, not wishing to appear non-compliant, turned to face her, he said.

“As I turned around, I was pepper sprayed,” said Cummins. “They dragged me to the ground, kind of pinned me to the ground, then they started telling me I was under arrest.”

Destroyed: The car police accused Kai Cummins of stealing. Credit: MyLondon News

The car had been stolen and, although it was in pieces while Cummins was visibly unharmed, police considered him a suspect. “They handcuffed me so tightly my wrists were swollen, bruised and marked for at least a month or so after,” said Cummins. “The position … was so high up my back I’m still having shoulder pain.”

Officers took Cummins to a hospital where he denied having been in a crash. His A&E report, seen by Liberty Investigates, reads: “Unclear as whether actually in [a road traffic crash], but given mobilising unaided and normal examination, no concerns.” The report also states that Cummins had been pepper sprayed in the face.

After leaving hospital, police held Cummins at the station for a further 13.5 hours. He was discharged when police obtained CCTV evidence showing he wasn’t the driver of the car. Cummins is taking legal action against the Met.

A Met police spokesperson confirmed that Cummins was arrested at the scene of the crash on 4 May on suspicion of taking and driving away and burglary, and that he was released with no further action. The complaint is being investigated locally. “In light of this, it would be inappropriate to comment further,” they said.

They handcuffed me so tightly my wrists were swollen, bruised and marked for at least a month or so after

Kai Cummins

Another incident reviewed by Liberty Investigates shows a police officer pushing and handcuffing a Black man while he was arrested on a residential estate in Fallowfield, Manchester, where he said he was delivering food to vulnerable family members.

In an 11-minute video, the man repeatedly asks for his handcuffs to be loosened, saying “my arm, I can feel it going numb”. A bystander intervenes, telling the arresting officer: “He’s not being a physical threat, there’s no need for this excessive force, he’s asked politely.”

The situation escalates as the officer turns and appears to push back a woman who approaches to see if the man is okay. Another man is repeatedly shoved backwards, and the officer then grabs the woman filming the video by the wrist, handcuffs her and tells her she’s under arrest.

As more onlookers and officers arrive on the scene, the arresting officer appears to deploy pepper spray. A witness, Fujo Malaika, vice-chair of the charity Faith Network for Manchester, who spoke to Liberty Investigates, claimed that she was among at least five people allegedly assaulted by police that day in addition to those pepper sprayed.

“Every time I see a police officer I get worried,” said Malaika, who added that she sought therapy after the incident. “We’re not safe with a lot of police officers, as black people. It can be anything, you see it happening all the time … They’ve got the power over us, we haven’t got any. It’s been that way for 300, 400 years.” She has made a formal complaint.

A spokesperson for Greater Manchester Police told Liberty Investigates it had voluntarily referred the incident to the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC), which oversees police complaints in England and Wales. The IOPC referred it back to the force where it is now being investigated. The spokesperson added that “as such, it would be inappropriate for us to comment further.”

Remi Joseph-Salisbury, who works for grassroots organisation the Northern Police Monitoring Project, which covers Greater Manchester, said the increased use of force during lockdown raised questions of police accountability.

“It really is worrying that, at a time of such immense stress and uncertainty, we are seeing such an increase in police use of force,” he said. “Even before the pandemic, Priti Patel and the government have been quite explicit about their plans to increase the numbers and powers of the police and we are now seeing the consequences.

“This has no doubt been accelerated by the pandemic, and the new coronavirus police powers which mean there are fewer checks and less accountability.”

It really is worrying that, at a time of such immense stress and uncertainty, we are seeing such an increase in police use of force

Remi Joseph-Salisbury, the Northern Police Monitoring Project

In response to the findings by Liberty Investigates, the Met said the rise in use of force was down to an increase in proactive policing targeting known offenders. Regarding the disproportionate use of force on BAME people, a spokesperson said: “The possible reasons … are complex. We work with partners on an ongoing basis to examine these concerns in greater depth.”

The Humberside constabulary also responded to say force had been used responsibly during lockdown. Chief Superintendent Darren Wildbore said the force had carried out operations targeting organised crime and domestic abuse, resulting in 1100 arrests “and a corresponding increase in our recorded use of force”.

A spokesperson for Wiltshire Police Force said that recording of use of force incidents had improved, accounting for the rise in its use of force; and that seasonal variations may have skewed the figures.

Greater Manchester Police told Liberty Investigates that it is now undertaking a piece of work to examine its own use of force, including a review of data. A spokesman said: “This is being done to increase our transparency, which is particularly important following the death of George Floyd this year and the Black Lives Matter protests.”

This article was published in partnership with the Guardian and Channel 4.