Malachy on tour

How escaping from island life can remind you of the benefits

I am sitting in a hotel room. The walls are a sickly, bright yellow, and the quilt cover is a peculiar tartanesque pattern, identical to the curtains. Outside my window is a large car-park; beyond that, a housing estate.

I am in Glenrothes, three nights in to a four night musical tour of Scotland. We began in Aberdeen on Thursday, and will end, on Sunday evening, in Edinburgh. This is the first time I have found myself 'on tour', and it is a fairly strange experience: long days with not much to do are punctuated by moments of stress and nerves, and then the concerts happen, and are over in an instant. They are followed, inevitably, by a sigh of relief, usually lasting several hours.

My friend Steven and I have spent the days driving around, visiting places both new and familiar. It has been good to see, albeit briefly, parts of the country that we had previously only heard of – Loch Leven, Gleneagles, Auchtermuchty – and the weather has been, for the most part, beautiful. Spring has definitely arrived here in the south: daffodils lined the road in some of the villages we passed through, and there is a definite freshness to the green in the fields and hills.

But travelling also leads thoughts back towards home. It is slightly depressing to remember that when I arrive back in Shetland on Tuesday morning, after the overnight ferry from Aberdeen, the world will not look nearly so green, and the sun won't be nearly so willing to shine.

Many people living in Shetland (and, I suppose, other remote islands) feel the need to escape once in a while – to be in a bigger place, with more people, and to feel less detached from the rest of the world. They take shopping trips to Aberdeen or Glasgow, or weekend breaks to Edinburgh or London: places where the world looks and feels different from at home.

A sense of claustrophobia can develop when living on an island – a feeling of restricted movement, which can grow into a more complex sense of being held back or restrained. Some people find it difficult to cope with. But an occasional journey to mainland Britain, or further afield, can help to alleviate that feeling.

There are restrictions on the mainland too, of course. Whereas in Shetland, the views stretch out across the sea to the horizon, here you are hemmed in by trees and buildings. Cities in particular can feel very constricting and claustrophobic, as well as being noisy, dirty and intensely alienating. For someone used to life on an island, city dwellers can seem like very unnatural creatures indeed.

And perhaps that is the reason for these journeys away from home; it is not the escape from the limits of the island that is important, it is the reminder of why you live there in the first place. One person's freedom is another's prison, and sometimes it takes a change of view to remember which side of the wall you are actually on. For me, freedom lies back at home, with the horizon all around, and I will be heaving one final sigh of relief on Monday evening, as the ferry leaves Aberdeen harbour, heading north to Shetland.

Malachy Tallack is 26 and lives in Fair Isle. He is a singer-songwriter, journalist, and editor of the magazine Shetland Life.
Photo: Getty
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It's time for police to admit their mistakes

Forces are not doing enough to protect the most vulnerable from harm.

Already this summer, four people have died after contact with the police. At least three of them were black men who died following police restraint. Last Saturday, 20-year-old Rashan Charles lost his life after being pinned to the floor of a convenience store, and restrained by an officer and another person in plain clothes.

These deaths aren’t included in the latest annual report from the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC), which covers the year ending 31 March 2017. But the deaths of Rashan, Edir Frederico da Costa, Darren Cumberbatch, and a 16-year-old boy, who died in a crash during a police pursuit, recall those who have lost their lives during or following police contact in the months preceding them: Mzee Mohammed, Dalian Atkinson, Mohammed Yassar Yaqub.

Between 1 April 2016 and 31 March 2017, there were 32 road traffic fatalities involving police, an increase from the previous year and the highest since 2008-09. In the same period, there were 55 fatalities from "apparent suicides following police custody". Six people died from "police shootings", the highest since 2007/08. Fourteen people died "in or following police custody", and there were 124 "other deaths following police contact" independently investigated by the IPCC. 

"Deaths in or following police custody" is not as high compared to other categories, however deaths that happen while a person is being arrested or taken into detention are some of the most controversial. That there was no reduction in the number who died in or following police custody, compared to the previous year, suggest past mistakes are being repeated and systemic failures persist.

Over half of the 14 deaths were of people with schizophrenia, depression or self-harming or suicidal tendencies. Similarly, two thirds of the 124 who died following other police contact had mental health issues.

The most common reason for this other type of police contact was related to the safety or wellbeing of those who lost their lives. Twenty-six people died from the police responding to their health, injuries, intoxication, or a "general" incident, while 23 people died from the police responding to a concern about their self-harm, risk of suicide, or mental state. Of these 23 people, 35 per cent were black and minority ethnic (BME).

The individual stories show an even more disturbing picture than the raw numbers. Officers often encounter people with mental health conditions, yet treat them as criminals. In the case of Mzee Mohammed, he remained in handcuffs even when he finally received medical care. The police should be called as a last resort to deal with someone having a mental health crisis, but in many cases of deaths in custody, evidence shows they take it upon themselves to intervene.

In 2014, Staffordshire police handcuffed and detained Darren Lyons, who had a history of mental illness and alcohol dependency, instead of getting him medical help. An inquest heard he died after being left half-naked on a cell floor, covered in his own faeces. Similarly in 2012, Thomas Orchard was left lying unresponsive, after being put in restraints and having an emergency response belt wrapped around his face.

Although the police do not have the expertise of mental health workers, they are trained in using force proportionately, reasonably and when necessary. Members of the public experiencing a mental health episode have complex needs and it can be hard to understand the condition they are suffering from to provide appropriate assistance. This is a challenge for police officers, however using force can exacerbate a situation and even lead to death. In 2016, Dalian Atkinson, at the time suffering a mental health crisis, died after being Tasered and physically restrained by West Mercia officers.

The charity Inquest reports that the majority of its police-related cases in recent years “have involved the death of vulnerable individuals in some form of mental health crisis”. Its analysis in November 2016 of deaths in police custody since 1990 suggested that the “use of force/restraint is more likely to be a feature of the circumstances of BME deaths in police custody” and “the proportion of BME deaths in custody where mental health-related issues are a feature is nearly two times greater than it is in white deaths in custody”.  

Earlier this year, an inquest jury criticised the Metropolitan Police for excessive, unreasonable, unnecessary and disproportionate restraint on Olaseni Lewis, a 23-year-old black man, who died in 2010 at a psychiatric hospital.

Deborah Coles, director of Inquest, drew attention to the fact that the “evidence heard at this inquest begs the question of how racial stereotyping informed Seni’s brutal treatment”. Met officers, instead of attending to Seni’s welfare, left him once he was unresponsive after prolonged restraint, because they believed that he may have been "faking it". This disregard of a black life recalls the institutionally racist death of Roger Sylvester in 1999.

Seni’s case was pivotal in leading to the independent review into deaths in police custody, conducted by Dame Elish Angiolini QC. The publication has been postponed, on many occasions. The delay follows a common experience bereaved families constantly have with the police, the IPCC and the Crown Prosecution Service in their struggle for justice.

Despite deaths related to Tasers, spit hoods and firearms, the police have recently called for increases in such equipment and weapons. The Police Federation say they are necessary to protect the protectors. But the protectors are not protecting everyone.

The figures and individual stories show that some officers are threats to vulnerable people, in particular those with mental health issues and from ethnic minorities. Forces have failed to implement recommendations, while the CPS has failed to prosecute unprofessional and abusive police officers. "The officers involved in the restraint have not been able or willing to offer any word of condolence or regret in their evidence,” Seni’s parents responded after the inquest into their son’s death.

To prevent more needless lost lives, the police must first take responsibility and admit their mistakes.

Carson Cole Arthur is policy and communications co-ordinator at the campaign group StopWatch. He is writing in a personal capacity