In 2015 the United Kingdom employed approximately 126, 818 police officers in the 43 police forces of England, Wales and the British Transport Police, the lowest number since March 2002. Metropolitan Police accounted for the most officers across the 43 forces as of 31 March 2015, operating in metropolitan forces in the City of London, Merseyside, Greater Manchester, Metropolitan Police, Northumbria, South Yorkshire, West Midlands and West Yorkshire.

Legislation and treaties

The Criminal Law Act 1967, Common Law and the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008, the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, and the ECHR set out the law and acceptable use of force in the UK. The use of unnecessary physical force is in principle an infringement of ECHR Article 3. The use of force should be ‘reasonable’ in the circumstances. Physical force is appropriate if:

  • it is absolutely necessary for a purpose permitted by law
  • the amount of force used is reasonable and proportionate

This requires a consideration of the degree of force used. Any excessive use of force by a police officer is unlawful and an officer could thus be prosecuted under criminal law.

Findings and statistics

Since 2004/05, the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) have published complaint statistics reports for England and Wales. In the 2014/15 annual report, the IPCC reported that there were 17 deaths in or following police custody and only one fatal police shooting in the last 3 years. These figures were more than doubled when the IPCC was first erected. The annual report for 2015/16 is due to be published on the 26th of July 2016. A total of 37, 105 complaints were recorded in 2014/15, marking a 6% increase to the previous year, and a 62% overall increase since 2004/05. Allegations of ‘neglect or failure in duty’ accounted for 34% of all allegations recorded whilst ‘other assault’ and ‘oppressive conduct’ or harassment made up only 8% and 6% respectively.

Public dissatisfaction and discrimination

Despite an average reduction in deaths in custody since 2004, a 2014 Public Confidence Survey revealed that public satisfaction following contact with the police was falling and that there was a greater willingness to complain. The Metropolitan Police, who operate in some of the most ethnically diverse parts of the UK, received the greatest number of complaints in 2014/15 with 6,828. However, young people and people from black or minority ethic groups were much less likely to come forward with complaints.

Whilst instances of police brutality in the UK is comparatively less than its US counterparts, there are nonetheless high profile incidents that have received wide media coverage. As of 2016, more than 140 people from black or other minority ethnic groups have died under police custody from 1990. The use of excessive force has been used on an array of demographics of British citizens, however police brutality against ethnic and minority groups often attract wide media coverage. Whilst some have argued that this is discriminatory or evidence of institutional racism, others have asserted that it is largely due to over policing in areas that are perceived as high-risk areas such as Northumberland or Bedfordshire.


In 2009, Ian Tomlinson was killed when he was hit in the head with a baton and shoved to the ground at the G20 protests in the City of London. PC Simon Harwood was an officer of the Territorial Support Group (TSG), a unit of the Metropolitan Police Service, until he was sacked for the altercation.The incident attracted criticism of both the “militaristic approach” of the TSG and the small number of complaints upheld by the Metropolitan Police despite referrals by the IPCC.

In May 2013, 21 year old Julian Cole was arrested outside a nightclub in Bedford by six police officers. The altercation left Mr Cole in a vegetative state due to a severed spinal cord. Expert evidence indicated that Mr Cole was struck with considerable force on his neck whilst his head was pulled back. Despite calls by the IPCC to suspend the officers, Bedfordshire chief constable Colette Paul refused to place the six police officers on restricted duties despite being under criminal investigation. The Bedfordshire police deny allegations that the use of excessive force on the unarmed 5 ft 5in student was race-related.

On the 20th of February 2014, Bedfordshire Police Constables Christopher Thomas and Christopher Pitts, chased Faruk Ali before allegedly knocking him over and punching him in the face outside his family home. Mr Ali was described an autisitic man who had the mental age of a five-year old.The police officers who were accused of laughing throughout the ordeal, were cleared of misconduct in public office by the Aylesbury Crown Court. Following an investigation by the IPCC, the officers were sacked following breaches of standards of professional conduct including standards of honesty, integrity, authority, equality and diversity.

On the 13th of July 2016, 18 year old Mzee Mohammed died in police custody after being detained by Merseyside police at a Liverpool shopping centre. Officers were called to the scene after Mzee was allegedly behaving aggressive and erratic whilst arming himself with a knife. After successfully detaining Mzee, the police called an ambulance after Mzee suffered a “medical episode” and was pronounced dead. Video evidence has surfaced showing Mohammed surrounded by officers and paramedics, seemingly fully unconscious whilst being placed face down with his hands handcuffed behind his back. Questions remain about how appropriate medical condition could have been administered given how the handcuffs would restrict breathing. Mzee Mohammed is the 21st black person to die in police custody in six years.