Recent media reports about police Tasers highlight two issues faced by the public and police alike. The first is the use of force. The second issue is accountability. Both threaten:
1. public confidence in the police
2. the doctrine of “policing by consent”, described by the Home Office as “the power of the police coming from the common consent of the public, as opposed to the power of the state.”
Issue 1: Taser Use of Force
The police say that Tasers are “a low level of force”, as Chief Superintendent Paul Morrison once claimed. But as I previously wrote, this minimises the effect of these weapons. Taser assault victims suffer both primary and secondary injuries when the weapons are used. PoliceTasers work by shooting two 11.5mm metal barbs on coiled conductive wires. The barbs attach to the victim before the Taser sends a 50,000 volt electrical charge through them. This initial assault, which can be repeated, causes puncture and burn wounds, temporary paralysis, and short-term cognitive impairment akin to dementia.
It is common for victims to suffer secondary injuries following the initial assault. For example, Richard Hagan was Tasered by Merseyside Police. As expected, the stun gun temporarily paralysed him, causing him to fall flat on his face. Mr Hagan lost four front teeth and had to have a bridge and crown fitted. Last week a 17-year old boy suffered a heart attack after being Tasered by police in Coventry. The teenager needed CPR after the police assault and “remains in a serious but stable condition”. And in the most serious cases, police Tasers can kill, as the tragic case of footballer Dalian Atkinson and many others show.
Police Federation Taser Campaign
Despite these concerns some in the police want more Tasers in the hands of front-line officers. The police officer’s union, the Police Federation, has been campaigning for Tasers for years. In January 2015 Steve White, then chair of the Federation, said that ALL police officers should be armed with Tasers. The next month the Police Federation voted for Tasers for all uniformed officers “to provide protection from terrorists”. This was despite Chris Sims, chief of West Midlands police, saying that step was “not proportionate to the threat” and risked “undermining the British policing model”. This moderating view didn’t stop the Police Federation campaign though. In January 2017 it published the results of its own survey, stating that 82% of the 6,220 officers who responded supported issuing Tasers to “a wider group of front-line officers”.
As with the roll out of (sometimes deadly) spit hoods, the Police Federation appears to be getting its way, despite reasonable concerns and an apparent lack of interest from its members (only 5% of federated members responded to the Taser survey). In January 2018 Hampshire Police confirmed that it would double its number of Taser-trained staff to 620. This was quickly followed in February when Thames Valley Police announced plans to increase its total number of Taser-trained officers to 390, a 50% increase.
But it stands to reason that more police officers armed with Tasers = more Taser use. More use = more injuries, more deaths, more miscarriages of justice. This represents a serious threat to public confidence and support, at a time when officer numbers are declining due to budget cuts. The Police Federation might want to reconsider its approach.
Issue 2: Accountability for Officers Using Police Tasers
The police are bound by a written Code of Ethics. It addresses the use of force, such as when an officer uses a Taser, saying:
4. Use of force
I will only use force as part of my role and responsibilities, and only to the extent that it is necessary, proportionate and reasonable in all the circumstances.
Police officers can be disciplined, and even dismissed, if they fail to meet that standard. But how does it work in practice with Taser incidents? Consider the case of PC Claire Boddie. In January 2017 she Tasered Judah Adunbi. (Watch the footage here.) The case was referred to the Crown Prosecution Service. The CPS prosecuted the officer for assault, but in May 2018 she was found not guilty on the criminal standard (beyond reasonable doubt). The judge said that the prosecution had “failed to persuade” him that PC Claire Boddie “didn’t act in self-defence”. That ended the criminal proceedings. But PC Boddie was referred to a disciplinary panel on a charge of gross misconduct, which is “a breach of the Standards of Professional Behaviour which is so serious that dismissal would be justified.”
Mr Adunbi’s solicitor noted that his client was only “allowed limited involvement” in the misconduct proceedings. And, as I have written, police routinely ignore guidance on outcomes in police misconduct proceedings. On 5 September 2018 PC Boddie was cleared of gross misconduct in respect of the Taser incident. She continues to serve as a police officer. Mr Adunbi is now pursuing a civil action against the police.
Police Tasers raise many practical and ethical issues. Used properly, the stun-guns can be helpful crime-fighting tools. Get it wrong and people suffer serious injuries and even death. Improper use has serious implications for victims, the police, and the public.
For public confidence in Taser-wielding police to be maintained we need to know that the police will abide by their Code of Ethics, especially their obligations when using force, and follow the principle of policing by consent. This must be backed by a robust and transparent police misconduct disciplinary regime to hold the police to account. We deserve nothing less.
Kevin Donoghue is a solicitor and the Director of Donoghue Solicitors.