On fatal and violent restraint: what happens after George Floyd’s murder

George Floyd was an African-American man murdered by police during an arrest in May 2020 after a store clerk alleged he had passed a counterfeit $20 bill in Minneapolis. Police officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee into the back of Mr Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes, as the suspect and several bystanders pleaded for his life. Mr Floyd said more than 20 times that he could not breathe and was pronounced dead about an hour after an ambulance arrived. He pleaded for his mother as he lay dying. Chauvin was found guilty of murder yesterday.

George Floyd in 2016 (Wikipedia)

A tragic loss for his family, a kind of justice delivered, a sense that at last police brutality, particularly against people of colour, has been recognised. However, there is something more that we also need to urgently face – the use of sometimes fatal, and always highly traumatic restraint techniques used by police officers, prison guards, healthcare staff and even teachers – internationally. The focus on the US and police brutality is right and proper, but we should also point up that at least on this occasion it was challenged by a court case, and a verdict given. Here in the UK, hardly any such cases get prosecuted and some groups in authority don’t even have to record what they are doing.

The UK has a long and inglorious history of restraining disabled people.

Manacles from the collection at Bethlem Royal Hospital (copyright)

These are iron manacles used in Bethlem Royal Hospital (also known as
Bedlam, one of the world’s oldest hospitals for the treatment of mental
illness) until the Victorian period. They were ostensibly used to help patients from harming themselves. I visited Bedlam, as it was known, during the research for my book Scapegoat: how we are failing disabled people (Portobello, 2011). I remember seeing a display case for the restraints – a gag, manacles, strait waistcoats. I ran into a former patient, Peter Rowbatham, who was exhibiting art work and he told me the place hadn’t been that bad, except when nurses “set us against each other to fight…they got bored. And nobody believes us anyway.”

What Peter said goes to the heart of why so many people get restrained. The wrong kind of people who don’t get listened to, who aren’t believed, whose testimonies can be dismissed as unreliable or untruthful. Would George Floyd’s family ever have received justice if a brave young woman, Darnella Frazier, hadn’t filmed what was happening in front of her, despite fearing what the police officers might do to her, and the trauma of bearing witness?

Here in the UK, we choose all too often not to believe witnesses. Some in authority take advantage of the fact that prisoners aren’t believed, people in mental health units aren’t heard – and disabled children, as I wrote in April for Unherd, are restrained and secluded in schools without any monitoring or need to even tell parents. Actor Sally Phillips told me about her son Olly’s experience: “He was pinned to the grass face down, with his arms behind his back, by a young male teacher wearing blue latex gloves while a small group of other staff looked on. Olly later said that he’d been carried through the school by four staff, one to each limb and thrown.” Model and actor Paris Hilton has also spoken out about her experience in a Utah boarding school and told me: “That small room, covered in scratch marks and smeared blood, with no bathroom, is one of the most vivid and traumatising memories I’ve ever experienced in my entire life.”

Restraint forms part of a sanctioned group of so-called “restrictive practices” used in education, health and social care settings, as well as, unsurprisingly, in prisons. In the UK, these practices are regulated with a duty “to record and report” in all settings except education. Methods include physical restraint (with a number of different holds taught), mechanical restraint (such as being tied to a chair), chemical restraint (using drugs) and the use of seclusion, with children being sent to rooms or even tents and confined within them.

Add to this the emerging practice of imposing “blanket restrictions”, whereby children are not allowed to walk, run or play with their peers, or must visit the toilet at a set time (which is often not appropriate for some disabled children), and it’s no wonder that so many parents of disabled children are terrified for their well-being.

The government, meanwhile, has proudly launched a new behaviour hub, highlighting schools that are, as the government’s behaviour tsar, Tom Bennett, told me, low tolerance for any disruption. He argued that restraint is : “incredibly rare in mainstream schools” and that the rules about restraint are adequate because it is rare, defending the use of “removal rooms and parking students separately from their classes…a common and useful part of many mainstream schools”.

So don’t expect action in England any time soon regarding restraint in schools although at least its use is monitored in other settings such as secure children’s homes, mental health units, even if it remains over-used. However, in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland parents whose children have been restrained are agitating successfully for change. England is lagging behind.

What’s behind our need for restraint? Of course sometimes people in distress need to be held, and sometimes people may need to be prevented from harming themselves or others. Everyone accepts that. But the overuse of restraint (and seclusion) in the UK and the US suggests something more disturbing, that it is the overt exercise of power over someone who is at that moment more vulnerable than the person restraining and that it can go wrong, without any consequences for the person who has restrained another human being. As the sociologist Ervin Goffman laid out so cogently in his analysis of what he called total institutions, where a group of people (prisoners, patients etc) could be bureaucratically controlled, unequal power relationships are justified by the needs of the institution. The institution serves itself, rather than serving those it ‘treats’ (and of course the institution can be the police, just as well as it can be a school or mental health unit). We need to be vigilant of all those situations where children and adults can be subjected to unequal power relationships and make those in power accountable to the rest of us. If it hadn’t been for Darnella Frazier it is possible that the police would never have been accountable. But a bigger question looms – what about all those people who are harmed – and even die – of restraint techniques where there are no brave witnesses or cameras to show what really goes on when the powerful abuse their positions?