‘My six-month battle for video of vulnerable man being tasered by police’
Footage would never have been seen were it not for Newsquest Cumbria reporter Phil Coleman’s court fight to release it. Here he tells why it’s so important for the public that he did…
Journalists often hear rumours about stories that seem unlikely to ever see the light of day.
That was precisely what happened with the account I first heard about a distressing incident involving a vulnerable young west Cumbrian man, seriously injured as police attempted to detain him.
By asking the right questions, to the right people, I discovered there was irrefutable evidence of this incident; there was police video footage, capturing the entire thing.
Initially, when the case came to the crown court, few details emerged. One clue to how dramatic this story was came as Judge Nicholas Barker dismissed the knife possession charge the injured suspect was facing.
“Unedifying”, was the adjective he chose, referring to the video of the incident. Yet that police video was not played in court. In the months that followed, I did all I could to secure that video footage.
In the corridor of Carlisle Crown Court, after the knife charge was dropped, I spoke briefly to the man involved: young and clearly vulnerable, he seemed anxious, confused, unable to describe his experience.
Standing at his side, his mother also seemed overwhelmed, clearly still shocked by the events of previous months.
How could I tell this story? The first hurdle was to somehow see the vital video evidence of the incident played in court — necessary to justify any application for its release to the press. That happened a few weeks later.
A second allegation against the man — resisting arrest — had been overlooked and the prosecutor chose to play it so the judge in court would see clearly why the case should not be proceeded with.
It was a key moment in this case. Court reporters often witness distressing evidence, some of it in video footage. But the impact of this footage was immediate, leaving a knot in my stomach.
There was silence as the video was played.
Everybody present — lawyers, court officials, the judge — watched the TV screen as the four-minute clip played, showing uniformed police officers yelling at the suspect, swearing repeatedly at him and Tasering him, time and time again.
The young suspect looked as vulnerable as when I had seen him in court two weeks earlier. He also looked terrified as he tried to flee. As shocking as the images were, the audio was even more distressing: in one poignant sequence, as the man lay writhing in pain on the ground being Tasered, he moaned, uttering the words: “Oh God.”
Seconds later, as he tried to flee, he shouted: “Help!”
Nothing in the footage showed the man to be posing any obvious threat — yet the officers’ efforts to overpower him were chaotic, relentless, fierce almost, I felt. The level of aggression from the officers disturbed me — and from what I saw in the face of the judge in court — a part-time Recorder — he too was unsettled.
He told the prosecutor he had seen enough.
The Recorder immediately accepted that my impromptu application for the release of the footage was in the public interest — but the final decision would have to be made by the crown court’s most senior judge, he said.
Thus began a six-month legal challenge as I sought to have that footage released. It involved mounting a detailed legal argument — persuasive enough to convince a senior judge that releasing that footage was in the public interest.
I told Judge Nicholas Barker: “The bodycam footage captures a remarkable and concerning episode of police conduct. The suspect was a vulnerable young man, assessed professionally to have been in a state of psychosis at the time of his arrest on June 6, 2021.
“Walking his dog along a country road, alone, and posing no obvious threat to any person, he was quite suddenly surrounded by several officers.
“Subjected to immediate verbal aggression from some of those officers, who used foul language, the suspect was repeatedly Tasered to the neck and body. After some minutes of such treatment, he could be heard struggling for breath.
“He was clearly distressed, afraid and in pain and ultimately rendered semi-consciousness.
“As a result of what happened, he spent a month in hospital and underwent brain surgery, with part of his skull removed so the blood clot he developed could be removed. The suspect has, I understand, suffered permanent brain damage.
“This case raises important questions about current policing policy and practice in Cumbria — particularly around the issue of officer understanding about what constitutes ‘reasonable and proportionate’ force when apprehending a suspect.”
In his ruling, Judge Barker wrote: “It is manifestly clear that the ability of the press to make full and proper reporting of a case is a matter of significant public interest.
“It is equally clear that there is a proper and legitimate interest in the degree of force deployed by police at the time of an arrest…
“On balance I am satisfied that this footage which was played by the prosecution as part of the presentation of their case can and should be disclosed to Mr Coleman.”
So what is this story about?
Ultimately, what happened on June 6, 2021, is a story of vital public interest that touches on many important themes: the way in which front-line police officers deploy force — particularly tasers; their ability to recognise individuals in a mental health crisis; and their ability to deal with such individuals appropriately.
But this is also a story about transparency and accountability within a police force and the right of society to scrutinise this powerful institution.
The blunt truth is this: had I not pursued the release of this video, an incident of real public interest for Cumbria — the way in which our front-line police officers do their difficult job when faced with a vulnerable suspect — would have remained hidden from public view. Forever.
More than anything, this unhappy episode shows why communities need a vibrant local press. The evidence of what happened is finally laid bare and the public can reach their own judgement.