By Henry Porter
A Police Federation article that appears to advocate the forced chemical sedation of suspects is a move into dangerous territory
Over the last decade or so, the police have had the run of things – vast investment, a huge increase in numbers (17,000), regiments of Police Support Community officers (16,000) to do the unglamorous jobs, and permission to write controversial policy that by-passes parliamentary scrutiny. That is why I took notice of an article from the Police Federation about “excited delirium” which subtly advocates the forcible chemical sedation of suspects by officers.
Kevin Huish, the custody specialist for the Police Federation, has returned from the conference of the Institute for the Prevention of Deaths in Custody – yes, there truly is such an organisation – with a description of excited delirium syndrome and the protocols for dealing with it.
The syndrome is defined in the Police magazine article by a multitude of symptoms, some of which may seem unnervingly familiar – running for no apparent reason; running wildly; being naked (trying to get cool); stripping off clothes (trying to get cool); apparent superhuman strength; seemingly unlimited endurance; violent resistance; violent resistance after being restrained; muscle rigidity; and the subject claiming “he can’t breathe”. In other words, pretty much anyone who is an agitated state, possibly because they have been wrongly arrested, have missed the last train out of Sheffield or cannot breathe because a police officer is kneeling on their windpipe.
Huish’s tactic is clear. “The Federation is currently undertaking work to formulate a strategy which we intend to lead to recognition and acceptance of excited delirious syndrome by the British medical profession.” Once this is achieved, it seems only a matter of time before officers are being issued with hypodermics as freely and thoughtlessly as they have been issued with thousands of Taser guns.
Naturally, this is presented as humane and sensible means to prevent some of the 92 deaths that occurred “following police contact” in Britain between 2008 and 2009, but I cannot be the only one to worry about the idea of chemical sedation of suspects, given what goes on in custody suites.
Recently, I was shown video footage from Charing Cross police station, London, of a man named Jermaine Wilson who had been wrongly arrested and was forcibly “restrained” after being a little sarcastic with one of the officers at the end of a long night of false accusations. During the course of the restraint, Wilson, who is black, yelled out that his neck was hurting and bit an officer. He was stripped, put in the cells and later charged with assault on a police officer.
It turned out that his neck had been seriously damaged in a car accident a few weeks before and that he had every right to cry out when five officers wrestled him to the ground and sat on him with one officer kneeling on his neck. Having seen the film, London magistrates threw out all charges, but I ask myself what would have happened if Charing Cross police had forcibly used a syringe loaded with sedative having “satisfied” themselves that Wilson exhibited symptoms of excited delirium? How much would Wilson have remembered of the incident? Would his neck have suffered greater injury? And would the administration of drugs not represent a considerable breach of Wilson’s rights as an innocent citizen?
This article in Police magazine represents an opening round in a campaign that I hope the medical profession will see is as much about police controlling people as about protecting prisoners. Too much policy has been devised and implemented by the police without proper debate. The mass surveillance of people’s movements by the automatic number-plate recognition (ANPR) camera network resulted from a policy decision taken by the Association of Police Officers – which has private company status and is therefore not subject to freedom of information requests – went ahead without primary legislation or one word of debate in parliament. The issues of Tasers went ahead without parliamentary involvement despite safety fears and the significant implications for relations between police and the public, which seem to me to be pretty bad at the moment.
Look at developments as whole – the use of Tasers to restrain, the possibility of forcible sedation and the introduction of virtual courts where defendants appear in front of magistrates court via a video link from the police station – and you will see that we are moving into dangerous territory where too many powers and far too much unmonitored control are being handed to a police force that is far from perfect.
Sedation of suspects is unacceptable.