Body cameras are to be worn by all police attending mental health units after 'Seni's Law' was approved on November 1. Here Darren Devine explores how far the landmark decision will eventually see everyone who works with the vulnerable falling under the camera’s gaze.
“I bear a burden I’ll have to carry for the rest of my life. It’s a burden I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy and I don’t want any other parent to have to carry that burden.”
So spoke Conrad Lewis about the death of his son Olaseni after “disproportionate” and “unreasonable” force was used by 11 police officers at Bethlem Royal Hospital in south-east London to restrain the 23-year-old.
He fell into a coma following the incident and died days later.
Lewis and wife Ajibola were determined their son wouldn’t become just another victim of excessive restraint, but that his death in September 2010 would prove a catalyst for change.
And it seems they all but got their wish on November 1 when the Mental Health Units (Use of Force) Bill, or Seni’s law as it’s known, received Royal Assent.
Ensuring the police wear body cameras when they go to mental health units is a key part of the new legislation.
And any non-natural death in a mental health unit will also automatically trigger an independent investigation.
Labour MP Steve Reed, who introduced the private member’s bill, says restraint was used 97,000 times in mental health units last year, injuring 3,652 patients — the highest number on record.
- See also: Police to be required to wear body cameras in mental health settings
- See also: Unfair British care - racial inequality in mental health underlined in EHRC report
A Home Affairs Committee reported black people more commonly reported force and people with autism or a learning disability are also exposed to an additional risk.
Researchers at Cambridge University have shown the presence of cameras can cut the likelihood of restraint and results in a drop in complaints against police.
Their year-long experiment in Rialto, California, in 2012 showed there were twice as many use-of-force incidents on shifts when police did not wear cameras, compared to those when officers were equipped with the monitoring devices.
So if Seni’s law proves successful why should it be the end of the story on using cameras to protect the vulnerable?
A key caveat in the Act allows police to restrain without cameras when there is an urgent need, such as if a patient is about to self-harm.
Reed, the MP for Croydon North, believes the principle of using cameras could be extended.
He said: “What we thought in putting Seni’s law together was that it would establish in law some principles that then could be used in wider contexts if it works.”
Care Campaign for the Vulnerable, led by Jayne Connery, is one group already fighting to see the principle of Seni’s law extended to other settings.
The group wants closed circuit television (CCTV) cameras installed in communal areas in all settings where the vulnerable are looked after.
Connery started the campaign because she had concerns about the care her 82-year-old mother Ellen, who has dementia, was receiving at a home in Buckinghamshire.
She recently visited a care home in Newcastle where cameras are installed throughout the building, including in bedrooms.
Connerry, from Gerrards Cross, in Buckinghamshire, insists residents are comfortable with this.
She said: “It’s not about Big Brother, it’s about safeguarding, about transparency. When you consider that many people that go into care homes now — a big percentage have some form of cognitive impairment.”
Connery added that “if families request to have it in the rooms then so be it — that’s what they should have.”
The campaign has recently gathered momentum, winning the support of the former attorney general Dominic Grieve, who is Connery’s local MP, and the Daily Express newspaper.
Grieve, the MP for Beaconsfield, raised the issue in Parliament last summer and has told the Express that incidents of abuse are “scandalous” and cameras would protect carers.
A catalogue of incidents where care workers have been caught on cameras abusing vulnerable elderly people has also strengthened the case for surveillance.
Connery admits there are fundamental issues beyond cameras, like low, pay that still need to be addressed in the care sector.
But the campaigner insists this is not an excuse for mistreatment and cameras could save many of the most vulnerable from the misery of abuse.
Connery, 51, added: "If you want to go and work somewhere with no pressure you can work in a shop. You don’t have to go into care. Care is a vocation. People know it’s underpaid, but they do it because they love doing it. That doesn’t take away the fact that they should be paid their worth."
"But I don’t agree that just because they’re underpaid that they should neglect or abuse the people that they are looking after."
Academic expert Eric Baskind advised Reed over Seni’s law.
Senior law lecturer Baskind is confident cameras in other settings, like care homes and special schools, would markedly reduce restraints.
Baskind, an expert adviser on violence reduction and the use of force at Liverpool John Moores University, said when staff are authorised to use force some abuse it.
“If you’ve got a camera on you recording everything, both audio and visual, we know that the use of force is more judicially used — if it’s used, it’s used a lot less,” said Baskind.
Baskind said standard written reporting procedures where staff have to fill in forms justifying why force was used are “very much open to abuse”.
The academic, who has extensive experience as an expert witness in cases involving force, said growing numbers of case papers come with CCTV or video from body cameras.
He added: "You can see there’s a big difference between what someone said happened and what you can see independently that did happen."
Baskind says he told Reed that as well as police, mental health unit staff should also be wearing cameras as they are responsible for most restraints.
And while the new legislation represents progress, an opportunity was missed in not giving the new law a wider reach.
Reed’s bill also failed to lay out the circumstances where it’s appropriate to use force as this is still surrounded by “a huge amount of controversy”, said Baskind.
"I guess because as far as Mr Reed was concerned, or those who were drafting it, it went into the so called ‘too difficult box’, that everyone talks about."
"It isn’t too difficult. People are dying, people are being injured because of this and there was an opportunity there that ought to have been taken, in my view, and wasn’t taken. I think that was a great pity," added Baskind.
Image: Jayne Connery, who set up Care Campaign for the Vulnerable to fight for cameras in care homes, with supporter Dominic Grieve.