Police treatment of the Disabled: taking their cues from Central Government

In the early hours of 6th June 2014, police were called to a home in Wythenshawe, Manchester by a concerned neighbour.  They had seen a man, Michael Gilchrist, roaming the streets, topless and covered in blood.  Michael Gilchrist, 59, has significant learning difficulties, is autistic and was already diagnosed with bipolar disorder.  

Earlier that night Michael had become extremely distressed and suffered from an episode of acute behavioural disorder, causing damage to his flat by breaking windows and consequently accidentally cut his hands on the broken glass.  Following this episode Michael left his home wearing only his tracksuit bottoms and began walking around.  

Two Greater Manchester Police (GMP) officers arrived at the scene and almost immediately sprayed CS gas into Michael Gilchrist’s face.  CS gas is a form of tear gas.  Another officer arrived and quickly used his taser, discharging it once but using two cycles.  

An officer then sprayed CS gas into Michael’s face for a second time, ignoring the fact that CS gas can become highly flammable when a taser is also being used.  A final officer, PC Schofield, arrived at the scene at roughly 6:03am, and despite Michael being on the ground and having already been tasered and sprayed twice, Schofield decided to taser Michael Gilchrist for 72 seconds, until he was almost entirely incapacitated. 

Michael is a mentally ill Black man who was at the receiving end of an intense, brutal and violent police encounter – his mother sued GMP for battery and negligence, stating that “Michael did not die that day, but in many ways, he has been taken from us, his family.  He is no longer able to communicate and he is largely verbally mute.  Michael had a quality of life before he came into contact with Greater Manchester Police and he has suffered life-changing injuries as a result of that contact.” 

Michael’s story unfortunately is not an aberration – figures obtained by the Independent have shown that two thirds of people who had a taser used against them were mentally ill.  The use of tasers has increased from 6238 incidents in 2010 to 9196 in 2014, nearly a 50% increase in just four years.  There has been a simultaneous rise in the number of incidents where a taser is used against a mentally ill person, with numbers increasing from 2,737 in 2010 to 4,200 in 2014. 

The response to these worrying figures have often been to jump to reform. The argument usually goes as follows: ‘the police simply need training, they lack the skills and the resources that are required when one encounters such a difficult and challenging situation, particularly in the last decade where austerity has been the status quo and police budgets have been cut down to the bone’.

However, whilst the police in Britain have often been portrayed as meek and largely unarmed especially when compared to the hyper-militarised and incredibly brutal police departments in the US, their function remains largely the same.  The police force is but one cog in the machine, it is a vital part in maintaining the body politic, and in our current context that means the structures of capitalism and white supremacy.  

To merely accept the slogans that are touted at us and the claims that the police force makes of itself, that they are in fact an institution that protects and serves law abiding people, is to then ignore what the police actually do. 

Over-policing Black communities to keep them in their place; surveilling and monitoring Brown communities (particularly those read as Muslim); criminalising mental illness, homelessness, migration and sex work; and suppressing dissent and protest.  

These are not clear cut categories, but issues that often overlap and run in tandem with one another. Most importantly their intimidation of these communities is not a sign that the police are failing. Rather they are examples of the police force doing exactly what they are meant to do. And with that in mind, reform simply will never go far enough in addressing these problems. 

And so the question remains: what do we do next?  Even though the ideas of police and prison abolition are becoming fully animated for the first time in mainstream British politics, abolitionists have been laying the groundwork for a long time.  This has spawned from activism and literature on the subject: from campaigns to close prisons and detention centres, to community-based support networks that give people alternatives to the police in domestic violence cases.

Michael Gilchrist has suffered immense psychological, emotional and physical trauma that, in his mother’s words, have made him catatonic and virtually mute.  There are undoubtedly countless other cases like this, and this is not limited to chance encounters by the police in the streets – the Guardian revealed that in just over a year the police used tasers almost 100 times against mentally ill patients in hospitals and other mental health facilities.  

The Government’s indiscriminate slashing of funding for mental health and social care in this country has left thousands of vulnerable at the hands of the police. Not only do these services need reinvestment and reinvigoration, the police should not be the institution that is called upon to handle these situations when their only response seemingly is to increase violence and harm.  

In the wake of such cuts, charities such as Breakthrough UK, The Greater Manchester Coalition of Disabled People, and Everyone Can continue to use limited donations to great effect.  While the State has receded from its duties of care to some of the most vulnerable in society, Civil Society can tap into the energy of altruistic people, willing to make thin resources stretch through sheer will power. 

However, this is often not enough.  Since 2010, 47% of disability claimants have either seen a reduction in their allowance, or its complete removal.  Professor Philip Alston, the UN’s special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, argued the Conservative Government’s cuts were “highly regressive”, pushing many disabled people’s families to “breaking point”.

While the Government can be in a state of denial over its treatment of the most vulnerable in society, Civil Society can act independently.  A small donation to one of the charities mentioned would be both an act of incredible generosity, but also a political choice.  It is to say, I value disabled people more than this Government does, and I want to do something about it.

By Nimo Omer

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