Recording police use of force on the public

Two police officers on patrol in Birmingham city centre, UK

A standard record of the police use of force led to new training for the police in England and Wales, and now for torture monitors across Europe.

The use of force by the police raises important questions about human rights. Such force can be deadly, as with tasers, and includes the use of anything from handcuffs to dogs. Until now, there has been no coherent record of why and how such force is used.

But today it is recorded in a systematic way for the first time, thanks to the efforts of a working party. Members came from the police, non-governmental organisations such as Amnesty, the Independent Office for Police Conduct and Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary, and which included Dr Abi Dymond, senior lecturer in sociology and criminology at the University of Exeter.

The main outcome of this group’s work was the introduction of a standard form for reporting every time the police use force on a member of the public. Experience since the form was introduced in 2017 has shown that it is no mere piece of bureaucracy.

While there was already reporting on the use of firearms and tasers, we now have information on interventions such as incapacitating sprays, batons, handcuffs and the empty hand. It turns out that mental health, ethnicity and age are predictors of the use of different types of force.

This activity led to the introduction of a new College of Policing training curriculum, to over 30 police forces in England and Wales reviewing their policies and practices on the use of force, and to more than 200 torture monitors from over 50 countries being trained.

Force: how and why?

This means, Dr Dymond says, that it is now possible to see the state’s use of force on its citizens in context. “We can see when and how force is used and find patterns of use such as those related to gender, ethnicity or age.”

This data is reported annually by the Home Office. It has shown that members of ethnic minorities, and people under 18, are disproportionately likely to be subject to certain types of police use of force. The existence of this robust data, says Dr Dymond, can create new possibilities for using information to drive improvement.

According to Inspectorate of Constabulary reports, at least 30 police forces in England and Wales have reviewed policies or practices, including officer safety training, the issuing of body armour, and internal monitoring procedures, based on the new national system.

She adds that there is still scope for this data to improve. At the moment, police officers fill in the standard form on an individual basis. But it would be valuable to have a more coherent account of the use of force at major incidents with a large police presence, showing for example which officers used force and why.

The data collected also needs to be more usable than it is at present, allowing individual police forces to apply the lessons it contains more easily.

Dr Dymond adds that there have been some issues with under-reporting, and data quality issues remain. At the same time, the growing use of body cameras by the police, and of phone cameras by the public, provides new data flows on the use of force. But Dr Dymond warns that even these innovations “do not necessarily mean that the police become better or more humane.”

The success of this project led in 2020 to Dr Dymond working alongside the College of Policing in a project on conflict resolution with minimal or zero use of force. In 2020 Dr Dymond was invited to help develop a national curriculum on the use of batons, irritant spray, handcuffs, and unarmed tactics for police officers to keep themselves and the public safe.

Before this initiative, personal safety training practice varied widely between forces. The college says that core training content, minimum contact time and recommended training methods are in the process of being introduced. Dr Dymond’s contribution has been described by the college as “central to the development of this curriculum.”

Dr Dymond helped develop College of Policing guidelines on the safer resolution of conflict, as a member of the college’s Guideline Committee. This committee ran from 2016 to 2020, developing guidelines (PDF, 389KB) to ensure, it says, that officers are able to handle situations without the use of force whenever possible.

She highlighted the importance of supervisors and others analysing use of force data to pick up emerging patterns. These points were reflected in the final guidance published in 2020 and applies to police forces in England and Wales. The College of Policing noted the importance of Dr Dymond’s contribution to the guidance, described by the college as a ‘highly valued role’.

International reach

In addition, Dr Dymond’s research has become internationally important. She and colleagues began by running a workshop for torture monitors in Poland. As a result, they are now recognised by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) as a partner across the region involved in training torture monitors to document the use of force and weapons in the region.

At the Poland workshop and subsequently, she has trained over 200 torture monitors from over 50 countries worldwide, especially in Europe, including Austria, Poland, Slovenia and Switzerland, and Central and Southeast Asia including Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.

Participants were members of state bodies established to prevent torture and other inhumane treatment, or of bodies that lack official status but which carry out important roles in civil society. This work has involved partnering with the OSCE Torture Prevention Lead, Omega Research Foundation, local organisations and United Nations offices.

Participants reported enhanced monitoring skills and better overall understanding as a direct result of the training. The senior official in this field in Poland noted that ‘monitoring weapons… is a crucial part of our mandate. Until very recently there was little guidance for monitors, and this training… enhanced our monitoring skills in this area’.

In Slovenia, the training will help monitors to analyse the training provided to police officers as well as internal police rules and regulations, and to improve policy recommendations on the use of electric-shock weapons and other equipment to the Slovene government.

In Europe as in the UK, Dr Dymond says, independent oversight of the use of force is vital. However, not all governments welcome the findings of such monitoring or act on them. OSCE has worked extensively on torture prevention. It points out that police officers can be involved in carrying out torture or in preventing it, making them a key group in the fight against torture.

Dr Dymond won the Economic and Social Research Council Celebrating Impact Prize award for outstanding early career impact in relation to this work in 2018. She is clear that the award, has been an important breakthrough for her. “It recognised the importance of this issue, and showed the importance of impact (as an academic activity) alongside teaching and research.”

More practically, the prize money helped pay for the Poland workshop, which has played a vital role in growing the international impact of this research. The award was especially valuable, says Dr Dymond, because it came at an early stage of her academic career.

Top image:  Credit: Anthony Devlin, UK Research and Innovation

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