Is the current police taser policy working? A few recent reports about the police’s use of tasers in the UK suggest not.
In 2013, police tasers were deployed 10,380 times across England and Wales. The weapons, which discharge an electrical charge said to be 50,000 volts, cause temporary paralysis. As a result, a police taser can be an extremely effective tool to ensure compliance.
But because the weapon can cause serious injury, the Association of Chief Police Officers’ (“ACPO”) own guidelines state that a police taser should only be used where:
- the police officers face violence; or
- when they are in a situation where the threat of violence is so severe they need to use force to protect the public, themselves, and/ or the person they are dealing with.
Police Taser Use in the News
Despite that clear guidance from their own leaders, these recent reports suggest that the officers armed with police tasers are not sticking to their bosses’ rules:
- A BBC report states that in the South of England taser use has doubled, leading Amnesty International to express concern about whether they are being used in minor situations instead of the life-threatening or serious violence ones they were introduced to deal with.
- Staffordshire Police taser use is three times more than the neighbouring West Midlands Police. The force has the highest level of police taser use per person in the country, and is being investigated by the Independent Police Complaints Commission (“IPCC”) about it.
- Lincolnshire Police are using police tasers more than twice as much as neighbouring forces such as Nottinghamshire.
- The IPCC questions the point blank use of police tasers. It notes that the police are officially no longer trained to use the technique of ‘drive stun’, where the police taser is discharged while being held directly against the victim’s body rather than fired from a distance. Despite this, officers are shown that the technique exists and use the police tasers in this way in 16% of cases. The IPCC said that showing officers the option existed but being told not to use it was ‘counter intuitive’. The IPCC commissioner also said that using the taser in this way ‘is purely a means of pain compliance’ which often made the victims of the police taser assaults more resistant.
Police Taser Defence
With all this recent negative publicity (the oldest story in that group is from 8 April 2014) you might expect the police to go on a charm offensive. But instead of re-assuring the public that the ACPO guidelines are followed, that training will be reviewed, and that the controversial ‘drive stun’ technique will be discontinued, all these reports were defended by the police for various reasons:
- Chief Superintendent Paul Morrison head of operations command at Sussex and Surrey police, justified the rise in police taser use by saying it coincided with more officers getting the weapons, and when discussing a case involving the police taser assault on a 14-year-old girl, said “Taser was a low level of force, if you use restraints or baton strikes… they could have led to injuries.”
- The Staffordshire Police and Crime Commissioner said police tasers were often used as a deterrent.
- Lincolnshire Police Force’s assistant chief constable, Lee Freeman, said that Lincolnshire’s large rural area is a factor in their comparatively high police taser use; that more of their officers were trained in taser use; and, according to the BBC report, “he said tasers were usually used in circumstances when someone [is] threatening to use violent behaviour.” (my emphasis).
- ACPO said that the controversial ‘drive stun’ technique is still shown during training because it could be needed in an emergency. They also questioned the statistics, suggesting that ‘angled drive stun’ (which they said is a ‘viable tactic’) was confused with ‘drive stun’ (the pure ‘pain compliance’ method.)
My thoughts on these responses are:
- Ch Supt Paul Morrison’s argument that more tasers equals more use has merit, but to then suggest that police tasers are ‘low level’ weapons undermines his argument. If they are so innocent, why are police tasers being issued to so many officers? Why is Amnesty International involved? Why are the IPCC criticising the police for using them for “pain compliance”?
- Staffordshire Police’s point that the tasers are often used as a deterrent is also justified according to the IPCC statistics, but that doesn’t explain why they are using the weapons so much, especially when compared to near neighbours like West Midlands Police, who have a comparable blend of cities, towns, and rural areas to police.
- Lincolnshire police say that being a rural force means that they must use their tasers more. This is disingenuous. England and Wales has lots of rural areas where other forces are able to deal with dangerous situations without resorting to the use of police tasers. Derbyshire, for example, only used the weapons 83 times in all of 2013, less than a third of Lincolnshire Police’s total. What did Lincolnshire do before they got their hands on police tasers? Simply let criminals and others they wanted to apprehend get away?
No doubt like Ch Supt Morrison of Sussex and Surrey Police, they would say that if they had to use a truncheon or fist instead that could also cause injury. Perhaps, but often not to the extent of incapacitating someone, who may then fall to the ground and suffer serious secondary injuries, which can be worse than the initial taser shock.
I am also troubled that, according to the Assistant Chief Constable of Lincolnshire Police, police tasers are “usually” but not always used “in circumstances when someone [is] threatening to use violent behaviour”. The ACPO guidelines above say that the weapons should only be used when the officers or others face violence or the threat of violence. When and why did Lincolnshire Police disregard official ACPO policy? What other circumstances now justify using a police taser?
- ACPO’s response to the critical IPCC report on ‘drive stun’ is to defend the tactic, saying that it could be needed in an emergency, e.g when the initial firing missed its target. Are we expected to believe that happens in 1 in 6 incidents? Can’t the police shoot straight?
They also questioned the statistics, suggesting that ‘angled drive stun’ (a ‘viable tactic’) was confused with ‘drive stun’ (the pure pain compliance method). This, to me, seems to be little more than deflecting blame and trying to change the subject to one of how the report was prepared, rather than dealing with the issues raised.
As a solicitor who deals with civil actions against the police on a daily basis, I am not surprised that the police’s responses were defensive. Their mantra when dealing with compensation claims seems to be: deny, deflect, and disrupt. They appear to be taking the same approach with the media.
Police Taser Abuse Defended
Tasers can be deadly weapons and, as ACPO themselves state in their guidelines, should only be used as a last resort when faced with violence or a severe threat of violence. The alarming rise in police taser use, the continued use of the painful “drive stun” technique, and Assistant Chief Constable Lee Freeman’s comments suggests this is not happening.
Reading the reports above I am struck that the various police forces respond to challenges by defending their techniques, denying wrongdoing, and challenging the statistics.
This is a systemic issue. Instead of excuses, we need solutions.
It matters because police forces are meant to serve the public, not the state, and an escalation in the use of police tasers suggests that things may have moved too far in the direction of control and compliance.
If the police are to win back public confidence, they need to learn lessons from the seemingly out-of-control increase in police taser use and their bungled media response to it. They could start by properly training police officers using agreed ethical standards which apply to all forces, avoid blaming others, and stop trotting out excuses.
Kevin Donoghue is a solicitor who specialises in civil claims against the police. You can contact him via his firm’s website, www.donoghue-solicitors.co.uk, or on 0151 933 1474.
Image credit: Marcelo Freixo CC licensed