“If you are vulnerable in any way, you’re more likely to be Tasered because of the officer not understanding what’s going on,” says Sophie Khan, a solicitor advocate who specialises in Taser-related injuries. In other words, a police officer may see the combative behaviour – not obeying commands, or aggression – and not the underlying cause behind it: a learning disability, perhaps, or mental breakdown.
The government-appointed body that oversees Taser use, the Scientific Advisory Committee on the Medical Implications of Less-Lethal Weapons (SACMILL) has acknowledged that certain people may be at risk of being Tasered simply because of who they are. In a statement published in 2012, the list is long. Mental health conditions, learning difficulties and neurodevelopmental or neurobehavioural conditions (for example, cerebral palsy and autistic spectrum disorders) may “negatively influence how affected individuals interact with the police”. The point might be: “Don’t be different”.
Police say this is misleading. “Yes, a Taser is more likely to be used on vulnerable people, but in the majority of incidents the device isn’t fired,” says Michael Brown, a mental health coordinator at the College of Policing and for the National Police Chiefs’ Council. A Taser is described as being “used”, even if the gun is drawn but not fired. Merely taking aim, says Brown, is a very effective deterrent. He argues that Tasers can save lives. “If somebody is posing a risk, the police have to police that, regardless of whether the risk comes from straightforward criminality or whether it’s from drugs and alcohol use, learning disability or mental illness. By the time the police are crisis-managing risk situations where people are self-harming, non-communicative and posing a risk to themselves or others, it might – just might – be the least worst option available.”
On 3 February 2013, Talhat Rehman, now 58, a halal butcher from London, jumped the barricades outside Buckingham Palace, where crowds had gathered to watch the changing of the guard. He had two large kitchen knives, which he waved in an aggressive manner, according to police, and went on to hold one knife to his own throat.
“The disturbance obviously caused a great deal of alarm to members of the public,” observed Peter Zinner, the prosecutor in the trial at Southwark crown court on 27 March 2013. “The police had no option but to deploy Tasers.” Rehman fell to the floor and officers retrieved the knives. He was taken into police custody and charged with affray and two counts of possession of a knife in a public place.
Rehman was sectioned. When he was considered well enough to be tried, he pleaded guilty to the two counts of having a knife in a public place (the charge of affray was dropped after Rehman’s barrister said there was no evidence that he wanted to hurt others, only himself). His son, Kassum Raja, one of Rehman’s five children, explained in court that his father had lost £170,000 in a financial scam. The episode, in his view, was the culmination of months of worry and anguish. On 17 May, Rehman was sentenced to a 12-month community order, including mental health treatment and a supervision order.
Rehman lives with his wife, his son’s family and his parents. When I visit Abdul, his father, 86, a trustee of Brent mosque, he explains that Talhat is in Pakistan seeing family. We talk about the Tasering and he confirms that his son had been “disturbed mentally” by money worries at the time; he had gone to Buckingham Palace to get help from the Queen. “He loves the Queen. We all love the Queen. He must have thought she’d help him out.”
The first he knew of the incident was when he saw it on the news: “We were very hurt and surprised.” But Abdul is not entirely critical of the police. “They are professional people, obviously they know what they are doing. But we thought it was wrong when they Tasered him. The knife, you know, was just there” – he points to his throat – “he could have fallen on the knife and hurt himself.”
However, Abdul says the experience further unsettled his son and that it wasn’t an appropriate use of force for someone with mental health problems. “He was very affected by it – it upset him a lot.”
In November 2013 Talhat Rehman contacted Sophie Kahn. “The entire episode had traumatised him,” Khan says. “He said he used to have flashbacks about being Tasered, and being dragged to the floor and handcuffed. They were quite rough with him at the scene.”
In her view, Rehman should never have been Tasered. “Had he been thrusting the knives at the police officers I would have understood – they’ve got to protect themselves, but both knives were pointed to his body.”
Even if Tasering Rehman was justified, Khan says, the situation should never have got to that point. She discovered that police had known about his unstable mental health for at least two years before the incident. They had visited his home to discuss letters he had sent to the BBC, the Queen and the Metropolitan Police commissioner, threatening suicide outside Buckingham Palace. Five months prior to being Tasered, he was arrested outside the Palace of Westminster. He was stopped, searched and found to have a knife. Police had been tipped off – by Rehman himself. “He contacted Brent Mental Health Service and the police to notify them of his plan,” Khan says. Rehman was sectioned and taken to a secure hospital.
In Khan’s view, the case demonstrates how the police could have averted the situation. “The police knew he wasn’t well. Why didn’t they do something? They could have referred him to a team who could have come up with a care plan – then he would have been in regular contact with mental health services.”
Almost a year after he was Tasered, Rehman wrote a letter of complaint to the police. He argued that the restraint was “unlawful” and that “police had failed to safeguard his welfare prior to the incident”. He received a response on 26 February 2015. They said that in their opinion there was “insufficient evidence” that the restraint against him “was unlawful”.
In the view of Michael Brown, the police mental health coordinator, the case is a textbook example of Taser use; one that is likely to be used in training. “He was presenting a threat, which means you wouldn’t want to get close to him in case he hurt you with a knife.” Officers “managed to mitigate that risk” by using the Taser. The incident “also had the benefit of being videoed at close range [by bystanders] so there’s perfect footage of it”. Of course, he adds, Rehman’s previous contact with the police is significant. But “the fact that the police knew something doesn’t mean the officers on the ground knew something”.
Spencer Beynon was born in Llanelli, south Wales in 1972. His father, Chris, 75, was a double-glazing salesman, and his mother, Margaret, 73, a housewife. He grew up a very happy, rugby-playing boy who had plenty of friends and was close to his family. He met his wife at 23, after a seven-year stint in the army. Ellen, now 40, was a hairdresser in Llanelli. “He and his friends used to come in and go on the sunbeds,” she remembers, “He was a charmer.” They had two children, Victoria, now 19, and Jacob, now 15, but separated after four years of marriage. “We just drifted apart, but we were friends always.”
In 2005, Beynon decided to go back into the army, and wanted to prove he could still make it at 33 by joining the elite Parachute Regiment (the Paras). “He said, ‘If I’m not fit enough for the Paras – the fittest of them all – I’m not fit to go back into the army,’” his father says. “He worked himself very hard.”
After successfully completing the training, Beynon transferred back to his old regiment – the 2nd Battalion, The Royal Welsh. He was deployed to Iraq and then Afghanistan, where several deeply traumatising events changed the course of his life.
Three months after arriving in Iraq, Beynon witnessed the death of his childhood friend, Ryan, when his vehicle was hit during a night operation. Beynon, who was in the vehicle behind, retrieved his friend’s body from the wreckage. “It was a policy with the boys, an unwritten law, get them out,” his father explains. “What they see out there, we haven’t got a clue.”
There were other pivotal events: the death of a baby during a search-and-recovery operation in Basra; the fatal injury of another army colleague in Helmand, Afghanistan. “Spencer and the nurse stayed with him for an hour and a half waiting for the helicopter to come. It was absolutely horrific. And people ask, ‘Why did he have post-traumatic stress disorder?’” his father says.
In December 2011, Beynon found out that Ryan’s mother, Alison, had died from cancer before Beynon had a chance to speak to her. Deeply affected by her death, he left the army and moved back home with his parents in Llanelli. “Alison’s death did something to his head,” his mother says. “I’d hear him in the night screaming.” He’d take a bottle of Jack Daniel’s and sit by Ryan’s grave. “He was totally obsessed with Ryan’s death,” his mother says. “He’d lie in his bedroom for days and wouldn’t wash – and my son was immaculate,” she says. He tried to escape into cannabis and alcohol. When his mother complained, “he’d say, ‘Leave me alone. It’s the only thing that takes the memories away.’”
On 14 June 2016, at around 7pm, neighbours contacted police to say Beynon was acting strangely. He was by now living in a cul-de-sac near the seafront, about a 15-minute drive from his parents’ house. His great love was Ganesh, a Boston terrier. “The dog kept him alive,” says his father. “If it hadn’t been for the dog, he would have taken his own life years ago.”
According to witnesses, two officers from Dyfed-Powys police arrived at the scene at around 7.30pm. They found Beynon slumped on the pavement with a self-inflicted cut to his throat. He was bleeding heavily. He’d also turned on his dog, inflicting such severe injuries that he had to be put down. Within minutes of the officers arriving, Beynon was Tasered. He died soon afterwards. He was 43.
Three years later, Beynon’s family are yet to receive answers about why police used a Taser, and whether that contributed to his death. Since August 2017, there have been five pre-inquest hearings. In one, last June, Sophie Khan, who represents the family, told the court that the officer who fired the Taser described Beynon as getting up and “charging” at the officers, but none of the other witnesses described him getting up, including the other officer.
At the fourth hearing, last October, it was revealed that Beynon’s father, Chris, had called the police that morning asking to have his son sectioned under the Mental Health Act for his own safety; this call was not acted on. “When the police attended the scene and saw Spencer Beynon bleeding they had an obligation to provide him with first aid, to protect his life,” Khan told the pre-inquest. “That did not happen.”
The barrister representing Dyfed-Powys police said Beynon had died from the wound to his neck; that the Taser “played no part” in his death, adding: “Three experts are of the unanimous view that a Taser was not the cause of death.” This included Anthony Bleetman, a freelance consultant who advises on emergency medicine for SACMILL, and one of three expert witnesses appointed by the coroner to comment on Taser use in this case. In his view, Beynon had an “in-survivable neck wound” and was beyond saving.
But Khan raised another concern at the hearing: conflict of interest. Not only had Bleetman been instructed by the IOPC as part of its investigation into Beynon’s death (“the coroner should appoint its own experts,” she said) Bleetman has an ongoing professional relationship with the police, providing advice and training in the use of force for two decades. “He can’t be classified as an independent expert,” she stated. Bleetman also has a prior relationship with Taser International. He was paid by them to write a literature review of Taser-related injuries in 2001.
“We are talking about a very modest sum, going back 20 years, which was always declared,” he says when we speak. Is there a conflict of interest? “That is a matter for discussion, but my approach to these things is straightforward: every time I am asked to comment on a Taser case, the first thing I do is alert the chair of SACMILL. His response has always been ‘Just declare everything’. It’s up to the courts to determine whether they consider my evidence to be truly independent or not.”
Bleetman defends the use of the Taser on Beynon. “We are talking about an individual who cut his own throat. Who did what he did to the dog. And in the cool light of day after the event, we say, ‘Well, why didn’t you talk to him? Why didn’t you guide him away?’”
A date has yet to be set for the inquest, but it’s unlikely to be this year. “For the family who have lost someone in tragic, complicated and distressing circumstances, the lack of clarity around what happened and why is only adding to their distress,” Khan says.
“We just want to get justice for Spencer,” says Ellen. “We want to get answers so we can move on.”