Sussex Police marksman removed from firearms job because he was deaf

Armed Police SUS-150508-160937001
Armed Police SUS-150508-160937001

A police marksman was removed from a firearms job because he was deaf, an employment tribunal heard this week.

Bruce Shields could have mis-heard the instructions “shoot” or “don’t shoot,” a lawyer representing Surrey and Sussex Police forces suggested to the panel.

He was questioning the former authorised firearms officer during the tribunal which was considering claims by the policeman that he had been the victim of disability discrimination while working for both forces.

The panel in Reading heard Mr Shields had been diagnosed as partially deaf in 1998 after an ear infection but had been allowed to keep his police marksman job until 2014, a fact which a woman superintendent supervisor remarked on, saying she “couldn’t believe he had got away with his hearing loss for over 12 years”.

Mr Shields, from Liss, Hampshire, was stopped from being an authorised firearms officer in 2014 after failing a hearing test which he believed was flawed and unrealistic.

He claimed Surrey and Sussex police stripped him of his title unfairly because of his disability and now wants to see a fairer annual hearing test created to replace the current “flawed” test.

The tribunal heard that after being stripped of his AFO duties in 2014, he now works as a lowly Safer Neighbourhood Officer in Guildford Surrey, a role he did not want and which he described as feeling “hugely humiliated“ about.

The panel was told the policeman joined Surrey Police in 1998 and was diagnosed with an inner ear infection in his right ear a year later. It left him partially deaf.

Despite of this, the officer was able to carry on being an AFO and worked in many challenging situations including an armed robbery in a Barclay’s bank in Reading in June 2010, for which he received a commendation.

Describing his actions on the day Mr Shields said, “I honestly thought someone would get shot. Things may have turned out very differently. If I was not able to hear comments, would it have turned out differently?”

It was this remark that Niran de Silva, representing Surrey and Sussex police forces, challenged the claimant in detail on.

When Mr de Silva questioned whether being partially deaf could make the difference between him mis-hearing a “shoot” or “don’t shoot” command, Mr Shields said, “We are not machines, we deal with what is there as we see it, responding to what we hear, see and smell around us.

“We use our training and capability as well as many factors to take the decision about whether to shoot or not shoot. It is my decision and ultimately I was not told to shoot.”

Mr de Sliva said, “But if your colleagues can see or know something further that you can’t, about the imitation if for example it is an imitation gun, one of them saying shoot or don’t shoot would be something to take into consideration surely?

Mr Shields told the tribunal that in the 12 years he not had a situation that resulted in a mis-hearing.

“In 12 years and the countless situations I have under my belt, there have been no evidence-based issues. Evidence in this job environment where we are talking about the intensity of the situation, with adrenaline and coping in a stressful situation is a different situation than casually talking with people in a relaxed environment.

“My job requires us to listen to what is going on and put into practice our training in a stressful situation. I have never had a problem with this before.”

When challenged that hearing people on different levels, with colleagues lying down or standing on different levels, would be a struggle, Mr Shields said, “Yes but difficulty in hearing is not the same as not hearing at all.”

Mr Shields said he recalled speaking to his superior, Superintendent Sharon Bush who he claimed had told him she “couldn’t believe he had got away with his hearing loss for over 12 years,” leaving the claimant feeling “gobsmacked” and humiliated.

Mr de Silva claimed Ms Bush had instead said she was “surprised” he had been allowed to carry on despite the police being aware of his hearing loss.

Mr Shields branded the annual hearing test used by the police for authorised firearm officers as “not realistic” and David Stephenson, representing the claimant said he wanted to see a functional and practical test created to test officer’s hearing ability.

In 2013 the College of Policing and APCO issued new guidance regarding the medical condition affecting armed police officers and when Mr Shields took his annual test by the new force medical officer he failed it like the previous 12 years.

However instead of being allowed to continue his work as in previous years, on May 14 Mr Shields was told he could not continue as an AFO with immediate effect and was put on restricted duties.

“When I handed in my firearm I felt bewildered and as though I had failed. I put it down to a misunderstanding but sadly I was wrong,” he said.

Mr Shields was told when being permanently removed from the role he loved, that public safety had to be considered and if there was a risk to the ability to a person to perform their role safety, theirs and the public’s safety could be compromised.

Mr Shields also took a test in August 2014 which he failed both with and without the support of a hearing aid.

During the time of the test Mr Shields told nurses that the headphones used in the telephone box style beep test would not sit properly with his hearing aid and he showed signs of discomfort throughout.

Mr Shields said, “This led to an unfair reading of my test.”

He said, “I believe I can continue to do the job well and make a difference in armed policing and if there was an alternative hearing test I could demonstrate this. There are many other AFO who are hard of hearing and I hope my case can give them help.

“I asked the force look into a functional hearing test and it was my understanding this was being done by the occupational health team. I thought Superintendent Bush, Head of Firearms and assistant Chief Constable Steve Barry would reconsider the options.

“I was advised to appeal the decision in relation to being removed from firearms by ACC Steve Barry. My appeal focused around the fact I felt I had been discriminated against because of my hearing loss and the Equality Act 2010. The College of Policing discriminated against officers with hearing loss in that no alternative test was available.”

On October 3 2014 he was informed that continuing his employment as an AFO was “not worth the risk” and Supt. Bush suggested Mr Shields could present a further risk to further hearing loss which was the overriding issue.

Mr Shields was told he was being taken off his AFO duties and told he was unable to fill a police trainer role because there were no vacancies.

His case, presided over by Judge Robin Lewis, continues.