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Thursday, March 08, 2007 

Taking on all Comers?

It's difficult to know on the surface just entirely what to make of the CCTV footage of Toni Comer apparently being punched five times by a police officer, with a boot being placed against her throat while three other men hold her down.

We have to keep in mind that Comer, after being ejected from a nightclub for being what the police would describe as drunk and disorderly, took it upon herself to damage the bouncer's car. What's more, she was quite clearly resisting arrest, and endangered both herself and the police officer by the way she was acting on the metal staircase. Whether she was responsible for the two of them falling down the lower section is unclear, but she certainly wasn't helping.

What certainly isn't clear is whether Comer was continuing to resist arrest when the punches were thrown. We also don't know where she was hit; it could have been the arm, in line with police procedure for those on the ground who are continuing to resist arrest and who can't be handcuffed, or it could have been her face. The fact that this has only come to light nearly 9 months on from the incident means that the bruising and cuts resulting from the arrest have long healed, making getting to the truth far more difficult that it could and perhaps should have been.

There are other things we have to consider. Anthony Mulhall, the officer in question, in his statement seems to make clear that there were considerable gaps between the blows he delivered. This is contradicted by the video, which shows Mulhall striking her five times in very quick succession. He admits to using brute force and striking her as hard as he physically could. Comer herself believes that she suffered an epileptic fit: Mulhall admits that he saw her foaming at the mouth, and that she was spitting at him, which is consistent with someone having a fit. It would also explain how she was spasming, and seemingly, resisting arrest. The question is whether Mulhall simply thought that she was continuing to resist arrest, which appears on the surface to be the case.

As Lenin points out
, when someone is having a fit, it's a bad idea to punch them and restrict their breathing, as placing a boot against their throat would. Whether the officer should have recognised that she was having a fit rather than resisting may turn out to be the defining point of the investigation that the IPCC has now announced.

I have very mixed feelings about the whole thing. From my own experience, and that of my friends and family, the police are certainly not always above reproach. The method of handcuffing someone with their arms behind their back can be incredibly painful on its own. My brother, who was minding his own business in his car late one night, found two police officers shining a light in, who then demanded to search the car. On finding a miniscule amount of cannabis, they proceeded to kick his shins (leaving bruises that took weeks to heal), later excusing their behaviour by saying he was resisting arrest, when all he was doing was complaining about the fact that they'd be better spending their time on real criminals than on someone alone who just happened to have a tiny amount of a Class C drug in their possession.

On the surface, it appears that Comer has at the least been roughly treated, and that the officers should perhaps have recognised that she was having a fit rather than continuing to resist. Beneath that however, you can't help but have sympathy for officers who are spending their own weekend having to deal with idiots who get drunk and then can't control themselves. Mulhall's statement does appear to be at odds with the footage, but he seems also to have been following standard police procedure, whether Comer was nine stone or otherwise. It appears that he may well have made a mistake, but it's worth remembering exactly what these officers do sometimes have to put up with, facing leering pissheads making comments and having to break them apart when they start fighting. Even though she was struck five times, no lasting damage has been done to Comer. Indeed, she can't remember what happened, and was only made aware of what exactly did occur when she herself saw the tape.

Then there's the Guardian's leader on the tape, which for an unfathomable reason brings Rodney King into the equation. There is no suggestion that racism was in any way responsible for the treatment dealt out to Comer, and I much suspect that anyone else who had been resisting in the same way would have experienced the same reaction from the officers. The beating which Comer took was also far removed from that meted out to King. The other sentiments in the leader are decent, suggesting that what happened needs to be investigated, and it now will be.

I estimate however that Mulhall will at most be given a talking to, or a warning, which is probably all the incident really merited. The police do probably need better training to recognise the symptoms of someone suffering from a fit, and that will also now hopefully happen. Whether all of this would have been better settled within the force itself, without the need for Mulhall's actions to be splashed all over the TV and papers is a question worth asking, but it's also worth wondering whether without said coverage if any good would have come out of an incident that all involved would most likely just want to forget.

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Balanced and interested. I rather felt the Guardian got hold of a juicy bit of video and were unobjective, especially comparing the punches to King.

Thanks for an enjoyable read.

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