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Victory in sight for Black Mental Health taser campaign

VICTIM: Former Premier League footballer Dalian Atkinson died after
being Tasered

BLACK MENTAL Health UK’s campaign to secure a ban on police deploying Tasers against patients detained under the Mental Health Act on locked psychiatric wards is a step closer to becoming law.

An amendment to the Policing and Crime Bill, made by the former minister for mental health Norman Lamb MP on the organisation’s behalf, has been re-tabled for debate in the House of Lords.

The culture of cover-up that dominates these sectors and unequal power balance between those subject to such treatment by statutory mental health providers and the police has silenced public debate. However, this unethical practice has gone on for more than 10 years without any monitoring or redress for patients detained in psychiatric hospitals. The powerful vested interests that dominate this sector has meant that BMH UK’s achievement of bringing this hidden human rights abuse to light has been no mean feat.

While termed non-lethal weapons, the tragic death of Premier League footballer Dalian Atkinson after he was tasered in August has raised questions about the dangers that these firearms pose. Atkinson’s death has also brought to the fore the disproportionate use of Taser firearms against black Britons. It has also spotlighted the often lethal levels of force that the police use against people from the UK’s African Caribbean communities, particularly those who are most vulnerable.

The Independent Police Complaints Commission’s (IPCC) Police Use of Force study published earlier this year showed those with a mental health condition are more likely to be tasered and subject to multiple uses of force while in custody. Data also shows that a staggering 40 per cent of police time is spent on mental health related incidents. However, there is still no monitoring on the frequency with which police are attending hospital wards or any transparency on how often patients are being Tasered or subject to the use of other types of police weaponry.

The United Nations Committee against Torture has spoken out about their deep concern at instances where Taser firearms are being used against people with disabilities living in the UK. The UN is clear that Taser guns should be inadmissible in any place where there is a deprivation of liberty.

Data shows that black people continue to be disproportionately subject to detention under the Mental Health Act even though there isn’t a higher prevalence of mental illness among black people of African descent living in the UK, either of common mental disorder or of psychosis. But there are high incidence of labelling black people with psychosis or schizophrenia.

There are parts of London that have some of the highest rates of detention of people under the Mental Health Act in the country, and the inpatient population of many of the secure wards in the capital are 100 per cent African Caribbean. The London Assembly Police and Crime Commission’s report on Taser found that 50 per cent of people subject to Tasers in the capital are black people from the UK’s African Caribbean community, even though they account for only 10 per cent of the population.

Charles Walker MP, vice chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Mental Health, has spoken about the need for closer monitoring of police deployment on psychiatric wards. During the debate of the Police and Crime Bill in the House of Commons, he called for the police to be obliged to report every incident where they attend a psychiatric ward within a week to the police and crime commissioner and the IPCC for investigation. There is definitely an urgent need for both the IPCC and also the Care Quality Commission, which is responsible for safeguarding against abuse of those subject to detention under the Mental Health Act, to monitor what is happening in this area. However, BMH UK remains clear that nothing but an outright ban on the use of Taser firearms against people detained under the Mental Health Act is acceptable.

The UK was one of the early proponents of the UN Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment (CAT), that aimed to prevent ill-treatment of those in detention, and the Government currently puts torture prevention as a priority of its foreign policy.

BMH UK is hopeful that the House of Lords will support an amendment to ban Taser use against patients detained in psychiatric hospitals during the debate on the Policing and Crime Bill so that the protections afforded under CAT are upheld for those detained psychiatric settings in the UK.

Matilda MacAttram is the Director for Black Mental Health UK and Fellow United Nations Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent.

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