17 Nov 2015

Police pepper sprayed six-year-old boy

12:08 pm on 17 November 2015

Police have revealed they pepper sprayed a six-year-old boy this year, after he threatened to kill his mother.

Official documents obtained by RNZ show officers have used pepper spray on children aged 12 or younger eight times in the past five years.

Police.

Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

Details about where, who and when exactly each incident happened have been withheld for privacy reasons by police.

In June, police were called to a house where a six-year-old boy, armed with a steak knife, was threatening to kill his mother.

Superintendent Chris Scahill said the child's mother feared for her life and for her young daughter, who was also home at the time.

"Police arrived and attempted to communicate with the child in his bedroom.

"The child was still holding the knife and had it raised up in a threatening manner above his head."

Officers tried several times to get the boy to put the knife down, he said.

"So the officer took some time to explain in a manner that the child did understand that if he did not drop the knife, he would be sprayed.

"And to the extent of explaining to the child.. 'this is going to sting, this is going to hurt.. you do not want this spray hitting you'.

"However, on this particular occasion, it was clear to the officer that the child was essentially beyond - given the child's agitated state - beyond reasoning with."

Water was put on the child's face immediately after and, while he was still aggressive towards them, the boy was able to be safely restrained, Mr Scahill said.

Officers backed

He stood by all the officers who decided to resort to pepper spray in cases involving children since July 2010, he said.

"And what's evident in all eight of these is that the police officers involved have immediately been acutely aware that they are dealing with quite a young person, a child in effect, which is out of the ordinary."

Police figures said officers used pepper spray 7358 times from July 2010 to the end of 2014.

Chair of the youth law advocacy group Just Speak Julia Whaipooti wanted reassurance that pepper spray was an absolute last resort.

"We would hope that as a result of this kind of incident, which I understand happened this year, that there are enquiries as to - are there better ways that we can respond in these exceptional cases, particularly when it comes to children?"

She accepted how difficult it must also be at times for police to work out the ages of some children.

Northland principal and Te Tai Tokerau Principals Association president Pat Newman said he was appalled a six-year-old boy had to be pepper-sprayed but that the focus should not be on the actions of police.

"The question to me should not be was the policeman in the right or the wrong but what have we done to get a child of six so worked up that he was wanting to kill his mother."

Mr Newman said he once had to deal with a nine-year-old who would have put a knife into him or the teacher if he had not managed to restrain him.

Youngest child to be sprayed

Mr Scahill said he had not heard of pepper spray being used on a child as young as six before.

"This is the youngest child to be pepper sprayed in the past five years.

"I don't have any data to say whether this is the youngest child ever. I'd be highly surprised if there'd been anyone younger than that."

In May this year, officers dealt with an aggressive, mentally ill 12-year-old boy who was threatening other children with a hammer, a rock and knives, he said.

"Police obviously approached the child and repeatedly requested.. and talked to him in a manner that he could understand that he put the weapons down.

"The child ignored the requests and drew back the hammer in a threatening manner... in a gesture about to strike with the hammer. At which point, the police officer deployed OC spray."

The other six cases included what police documents described as a drunk, aggressive 12 year old with a knife who was threatening others.

Pepper spray was also used on another drunk 12 year old who assaulted an officer and on one who had attacked another a child.

Police have had one complaint about one of the eight cases.

Details revealed in the official documents obtained by RNZ about all eight cases

August 2011:

"The [12-year-old] child who was subject to an interim custody order had absconded from a CYF residential home. After the child was located, police attempted to detain the child. During this process the child began assaulting a police officer who was unable to restrain the child due to the confined location and the active interference from an adult. As well as the assaultive behaviour by the child and interference from the adult, the presence of a large dog in the confined area added to the risk. After a warning was given and ignored, a second officer deployed OC spray. The OC spray was effective and both the child and adult were arrested with minimal force. Police officers administered aftercare and the child was examined by a doctor who confirmed the child was fine and had no long term effects after being sprayed."

June 2012:

"The [12-year-old] child had been detained after she had allegedly assaulted an adult. She had been drinking with a group of older young people and was extremely intoxicated. The child had been verbally and physically aggressive to police and staff, and had threatened to harm herself and others. When police noticed she was in possession of a knife they repeatedly asked her to put the knife down. The child was in an agitated state and continued to threaten herself and others while waving the knife around. An officer then deployed OC spray in order to secure the knife and stop the child from harming herself or others. The child was subsequently referred to Youth Aid Services."

July 2013:

"A lone officer observed a large number of children and young people fighting each other. The officer believed the young people included members of a youth gang, which had a history of violence and carriage of weapons. After observing a child chase down and assault another child, the officer approached the group and identified himself and instructed the young people to stop their behaviour. The group of young people decamped except for the child who he had observed assaulting the child victim; the [12-year-old] child (subject) turned to face the officer with clenched fists, while standing over the victim. After the officer deployed OC spray, the [12-year-old] child fled. The child was later located at his home address, where the officer confirmed that the child was fine and the effects of the spray had worn off. The officer then informed the child's father that the child had been sprayed and the matter was referred to Youth Aid Services."

February 2014:

"Police were executing a search warrant at an address. While an officer was deploying spray against an aggressive and advancing dog, a previous unseen [nine-year-old] child moved out from behind a wall and walked into the stream. The OC spray made brief contact with the child's legs, which were covered by long pants. The child did not appear to be affected at all by the spray. Police informed the child's mother and advised her to change the child's clothes as a precautionary measure."

June 2014:

"Police were called to a mental health incident by a child's mother. The child had a history of mental health issues and self-harming and was in possession of a large knife. The child ignored requests by police to drop the knife and ran into the street. When police cornered the child, the child began waving the knife at them. After warning the child that she would be sprayed if she did not drop the knife, and due to the increased threat of approaching traffic on the road, police deployed OC spray to prevent the child from harming herself or others. Police administered aftercare procedures. The child did not appear to have suffered any physical injuries. The child was taken for a mental health assessment and then released back to her mother. The matter was then transferred to Youth Aid Services."

November 2014:

"Police had been called to a domestic dispute incident involving a large group of intoxicated people. After an adult male was arrested, the group became hostile to police and several members of the group assaulted police. While attempting to arrest another adult male, an adult female and a [12-year-old] child, who was also intoxicated, began obstructing and assaulting the arresting officer. Attempts to communicate and manually restrain the child by other officers were not successful. The child was given a warning to stop otherwise she would be sprayed. The child ignored the warning and continued to assault the officer so OC spray was deployed. The OC spray was effective. Aftercare was initially provided until the child's family refused further treatment. The child was returned to a caregiver."

May 2015:

"Police were called to a mental health incident involving an aggressive child who had threatened violence on others and was in possession of weapons, including a hammer, a rock and knives. Other children were also at the address. Police approached the child, repeatedly requesting that he put the weapons down. The child ignored the requests and drew back the hammer in a threatening manner, at which point police deployed OC spray. The OC spray was effective, and the weapons were secured. Police then administered aftercare."

June 2015:

"A [six-year-old] child's mother called police when the child, who was in possession of a knife, threatened to kill her. When police arrived the child was in a room, holding a knife in a threatening manner. Police attempted to communicate with the child several times with no success. A warning was given, saying that if he did not drop the knife he would be sprayed - the child shook his head. Police deployed OC spray after assessing that the tactical option would be the lowest level of force required to prevent the child from harming himself or others. The OC spray was effective and police were able to secure the knife without injury to the child. Aftercare was administered by the child's mother with assistance from police. The child was then released into the custody of a caregiver.

"Details relating to specific dates, times, places, and persons involved, are withheld for all events."