A man whose son died following police restraint during a mental health crisis has said that he has to live with the guilt of knowing that his son might still be alive had he not called them for help.
Neal Saunders, 39, died on 3 September 2020 after he was restrained by Thames Valley police officers at his father’s home in Langley in Berkshire.
An inquest jury heard that his father, Ron Saunders, had called police to his home for help after his son was displaying symptoms of paranoia and acute behavioural disturbance.
Saunders was arrested on suspicion of assault, and then handcuffed and restrained by several officers shortly before his death following a cardiac arrest. Paramedics were called to the scene and Saunders was taken to hospital by ambulance, where he later died. He was restrained by the officers for a total of 75 minutes, and had repeatedly said “I can’t even breathe”.
On Friday, the jury found that it was “appropriate” that Saunders was restrained during the incident as there was no “safe practicable alternative”. The jury also found that although Thames Valley police were trained to avoid prolonged restraint, they were not trained to assess when restraint becomes prolonged, and that the position Saunders was carried to the ambulance in had “minimally” contributed to his death.
Saunders’ death has raised questions as to whether the police are an appropriate crisis team to turn to when people are experiencing a mental health crisis, as Saunders’ father had expressed profound regret for dialling 999.
Ron Saunders has said that he would never have called the police for help if he knew that they would have restrained his son.
He said: “I thought [the police] might be able to help calm him down. I defy anyone to be restrained like Neal was and feel able to breathe properly or be calm. I’ve learned the hardest way that the police don’t seem to be the right agency to respond to someone in Neal’s condition. I wish there had been an emergency crisis service with properly trained medical professionals who could have helped Neal to relax and get him the treatment that he needed.
“I live with the guilt every single day that Neal might still be alive if I hadn’t called the police but there was no other emergency service who could have helped us. Neal spent his very last moments in life restrained by officers for over an hour and then restrained face down in an ambulance for over 10 minutes. There has got to be another way of responding to someone in Neal’s condition so that no parent has to experience what I have.”
Rachel Harger of Bindmans LLP, who represents the Saunders family, said: “The family hope if nothing else that the tragic circumstances of Neal’s death will spark a national conversation about who is best placed to respond to someone suffering with ABD, drug-induced psychosis or any other mental health crisis.
It is hoped that serious consideration can be given to establishing an emergency crisis team that can respond to those in crisis, which is led by medical professionals rather than police, properly trained in de-escalation.”