Despite official warnings about safety and reliability, the Home Secretary has authorised the use of Taser 7 weapons by all 43 UK police forces. Kevin Donoghue, a solicitor who specialises in civil actions against the police, considers the implications for the public and police alike.
Recently Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, allowed Chief Constables in the UK’s 43 police forces to buy the new Taser 7 pistol-like devices.
“It is sickening that our brave police officers face assaults and attacks as they work tirelessly to keep us all safe. They are our protectors and I will do everything in my power to give them what they need to keep themselves and the public safe.
This new taser model will provide a safe and effective tool for apprehending criminals.
The taser is an important tactical option for police in potentially dangerous situations.”
Funding for the new Tasers will come from a £10 million cash reserve announced in September 2019. £6.7 million has already been allocated for Tasers and training. All forces who applied for the extra funding got the full amount requested.
It is not clear if the unspent money is for the new Taser 7, which was released in November 2018, or older models like the X2 (launched 2017) or X26e (released in 2005). Funding allocations cover the period up to March 2021. I expect many forces will get the latest Taser 7 “kit” (as police officers like to call it).
What is the Taser 7?
Axon, its manufacturer, describes Taser 7 as “the most effective TASER weapon ever.”
See it in use here:
Axon says Taser 7 has the following features when compared to previous models:
- faster, more accurate
- stronger, better connections
- better clothing penetration, less ricochet
- redesigned darts with twice the kinetic energy
- faster cartridge reloads
- short (4 feet) and long range (12-22 feet) cartridges
- green laser, bright in daylight
- smart battery.
What Do the Police Say About Tasers?
Chief Constables and the Police Federation have championed the use of Tasers for years. The police seem thrilled by this recent announcement.
Taser is an extremely effective means of dealing with many dangerous situations that our officers face on the streets and is a less lethal option in comparison to conventional firearms.
Chief Constable Mike Cunningham, CEO of the College of Policing, said:
Policing is becoming ever more challenging and ensuring officers have the training and support needed to keep themselves safe while protecting the public is rightly a priority for the service.
Chief Officer Dale Checksfield of Durham Police hailed the announcement as “great news” and echoed calls for volunteer special constables to get the weapons, which Kent Police is pursuing.
Great news for policing & the public. The continued absence of #specialconstables on the licence remains a concern. Action needed to ensure SCs, appropriately trained & competent, can access AND have the support if something goes wrong @pritipatel https://t.co/GIBJh9YujX
— Chief Officer Dale Checksfield (@DurhamSCChief) August 24, 2020
Government Testing of Taser 7
The Taser 7 announcement means that the UK’s police forces:
- get a new weapon
- funded by central government
- which is popular with senior officers and the police union.
Sounds good, right? Not so fast.
The Ministry of Defence’s Scientific Advisory Committee on the Medical Implications of Less-lethal Weapons (SACMILL) benchmarked the new Taser 7 by comparing it to previous Tasers.
Its independent assessment was less glowing than the comments above suggest.
It found that, compared to previous models, Taser 7 may:
- be more painful for the subject and cause vasovagal syncope (a sudden drop of heart rate and blood pressure, causing fainting) because of its pulsing electrical output
- “elevate the risk of skull and other bony injuries associated with uncontrolled falls and of musculoskeletal injury due to a more forceful muscle contraction”
- cause an “increase in the incidence of darts penetrating the body to their full depth” and “injuries to deeper-lying organs and tissues”
- fail to operate due to trapped ejectors and stiff triggers
- cause operational issues as officers must decide between using short- and long-range cartridges under potentially stressful conditions.
Free-Flying Probe Problem With Taser 7
Another key difference between Taser 7 and previous models is that the 11.6mm long metal barbs:
- are fired from the weapon using “higher kinetic energy and momentum”, and
- detach from the tethering wire when it is fully extended.
This means that, as SACMILL understands,
“detached probes have the potential to fly up to 25 m before striking the ground”
What’s more, during testing SACMILL found that the new Taser 7’s barbs “may have a tendency to stray further from the point of aim”, causing:
the potential to raise the risk of upper probe strikes to the vulnerable areas of the head and neck in the event that the point of aim of the upper probe is inadvertently set too high.
“Probes detaching from the wire at full extension producing an additional risk to bystanders (including other officers), a risk that is not present with the X2™ or X26™.”
SACMILL worried that this “novel risk” could cause unintended injury. The chances of this collateral damage are significantly higher with Taser 7 than previous models. This is because police using Taser 7 are between about 7-20 times more likely to miss the target, as you can see in the table below:
This test was performed with the target 3m (10 feet) away. But, as I mentioned earlier, the new Taser 7 can be fired from up to 7m. It is likely that police officers using the stun-gun would be even less accurate from this distance.
Inadequate Police Training for Tasers
“training cannot eliminate the risk associated with detaching probes but may assist in its management.”
But, as the government itself announced, a mere 1.5% (£150,000) of the £10 million for Tasers has been set aside for training.
And, as I previously described, Taser-wielding officers currently get just three days’ training before they are let loose on the public with these potentially deadly weapons. Spending so little on firearms training compared to the cost of this “kit” shows where the police and government’s priorities lie.
The police’s solution to the risk of unintended injury does not inspire confidence. The official guidance is simply to get Taser-wielding police officers to move closer:
At the recent National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) Covert CED meeting the College of Policing proposed that officers could mitigate this problem by dynamically closing the distance between the target and the officer and emphasising in training the different operational probe spreads.
I am not convinced. I expect that, when officers learn about the new Taser 7’s long-distance abilities, they will be more inclined to use the stun-guns from a distance. This will increase the likelihood of unintended injury.
And, as Tasers get issued to more police officers, it is likely that they will be used even more than last year, when police confirmed record high deployments.
Police Guidance on Taser Use
Previous versions of Taser have caused or contributed to at least 18 deaths in the UK. SACMILL’s concerns about the new Taser 7’s accuracy and injury risk are valid. Tragically, it seems inevitable that the police’s expected use of these weapons is likely to cause or contribute to more deaths.
Such concerns are not new.
The Association of Chief Police Officers guidance about Tasers is clear. Police should only use them when:
- 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.
Despite these warnings, officers can forget their training in the heat of the moment. Some may shoot the stun-gun simply to apprehend suspects or use them for “pain compliance” to assert their authority.
Deploying Tasers in this way is an inappropriate, and potentially deadly, use of weaponry. As well as the physical effects on suspects and others, officers could face criminal, civil, and disciplinary charges.
Chief Constable Responsibility
The Home Office announcement notes that the decision to get Taser 7s rests with individual Chief Constables, who apply their own “strategic threat and risk assessment”. It says that all Chief Constables:
“have undertaken a commitment for every officer who patrols with Taser to be equipped with Body Worn Video.”
But Chief Constables should ask themselves, is it possible that concerns about the new Taser 7 are why the Home Office passed the buck?
The STRA is used to determine which units have Taser and the final decision is with your individual Chief Constables as to which units should have Taser. This is not something I decide as national lead. In MPS commander @KyleGordonMPS leads.
— Lucy D’Orsi (@LucyDorsiMPS) March 1, 2019
Police in the UK are rightly proud of their global reputation for being largely unarmed, except for certain officers in specialised units. Giving police officers more of these powerful and potentially deadly weapons is dangerous for both the police and public, can lead to miscarriages of justice, and leads to the view that the police are turning into a paramilitary force.
Chief Constables should think long and hard before arming their officers with Tasers.
Kevin Donoghue is a solicitor who specialises in civil actions against the police. Contact him here.