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Home / Outcomes / 2023 Summaries of Police Investigations

Police staff forcibly removed clothing and used pepper spray after self-harm attempt in Nelson custody

11 May 2023

The Authority oversaw a Police investigation into an incident where a man attempted to harm himself in a Police cell. Staff responded and successfully stopped the attempt. To avoid further harm, Police removed the man’s clothing. He would not co-operate; it took three staff members to restrain him, and a further staff member to use pepper spray.

Police conducted an incident investigation. They found that the initial search of the man was inadequate, that using the pepper spray was justified (but breached policy by being applied too closely to the man’s face), and that the officers were justified in removing the man’s clothing to prevent the possibility of suicide. They also found that the medical assistance given to the man to cope with the effects of the spray was timely within the circumstances.

The Authority agrees that the search of the man was inadequate and that the spray was in breach of policy, however, disagrees with the other Police findings. Firstly, the Authority determines that the use of spray was disproportionate and unreasonable. Within Police policy, the use of pepper spray in custody can be justified, but only in “exceptional” circumstances. The Authority does not agree that these circumstances were exceptional. There were three Police staff holding the man, and a fourth available; although it would have taken time, there were alternative methods of subduing the man.

Secondly, the Authority disagrees with the Police decision to forcibly remove the man’s clothing. Police can remove clothing to “prevent imminent and serious injury”. The Authority appreciates that the situation was concerning, however, once the initial attempt at harm had been stopped the man was no longer in imminent danger. CCTV shows that the man was subdued until his clothing was removed. Therefore, there were opportunities for alternate, less forceful options to keep the man safe, such as constantly monitoring him. In using force, the man became distressed, the removal of his clothing had the opposite effect to what Police intended and placed both him and them at risk.

Lastly, the Authority agrees that nine minutes is a long time to wait for medical attention, we accept that with all staff affected by the OC Spray they needed to attend to themselves before the male. CCTV shows he was in discomfort in his cell for nine minutes after the spray was used.

The Authority considered that the involved officers should have faced an employment outcome.

The Police are developing & consulting the Authority on a practice note on using force to remove clothing from detainees.

IPCA: 22-14139

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