Solicitor Kevin Donoghue considers the impact of resignations from the Taser Stakeholder Advisory Group.
The resignations of human rights group Liberty, Inquest (I am a member of both groups), Stopwatch, the Open Society, academic Dr Mike Shiner, and others was partly because their input was being ignored. Dr Shiner, an associate professor at LSE and one of the resigning members said that,
Police representatives have not valued our expertise, treated the issues we have raised with the level of seriousness they warrant, followed through on commitments made to the NTSAG, or constituted the group to engender meaningful consultation. Accordingly, we can no longer continue as members.
The NPCC has effectively sidelined the group and is using it for decorative purposes, creating a false impression of consultation and engagement.
Lucy D’Orsi, deputy assistant commissioner, said that the Group “was formed to provide expertise, critical appraisal and advice to police on the use of Taser.” It included representatives from the police, the Independent Office for Police Complaints, and other interested bodies.
What the Taser Advisory Stakeholder Group Resignations Mean for the Public
I am troubled by this development and the reasons behind it. Their resignation affects all of us because:
- The police’s use and campaign for more Tasers was already controversial. Human rights advocates firmly believe that Tasers should only be used as a last resort. Better alternatives exist, including de-escalation, or, where that fails, approved physical restraint techniques. The mass resignation exposes the conflict between how the stun-guns are perceived by the police and those who hold them to account.
And yet, senior officers describe them as “a low level of force”. (Think about how absurd that comment is for a moment: what firearms do you know of that cause only “low-level force”? I can’t think of any.)
Even when not deadly, Tasers can cause serious injuries. The weapon is designed to incapacitate but causes other known effects, including:
- puncture wounds and burn injuries caused by the Taser’s metal barbs and electrical discharge
- cognitive impairment comparable to dementia
- temporary paralysis. This causes secondary injuries, such as head injuries, from falls. For example, one of my clients sustained a brain injury after being Tasered and falling on to a marble window ledge. We allege unjustified Taser use and his civil action against the police is ongoing.
Nearly a fifth (30,548) of our 156,833 officers are trained to use Tasers now, and that number is set to grow. Police forces like Kent, Northamptonshire, and Durham already have a policy of issuing Taser weapons to any front-line officer who wants one.
And, as I previously noted, more Tasers = more use. Last year their use increased by 39% to over 23,000 incidents. This percentage increase was on top of previous years’ increases and more than double the 2016 total of 11,000 deployments.
But to get a Taser, officers are given just three days’ training with an annual refresher course. Despite this shockingly-brief training, the failure rate is 15-20%. This means that one in five officers fail to show the required skills or judgement to handle a Taser.
I expect that the number of Taser incidents will increase without the check on power provided by the Advisory Group’s resigning parties.
- The government, egged on by the police and powerful lobbying organisations including the Police Federation, seems intent on getting more of these weapons into the hands of police officers. It reserved £10 million in September 2019 to arm 10,000 police officers. The home secretary, Priti Patel, announced the cash boost by saying:
“I’ve been completely appalled by the recent spate of serious assaults on police officers, which is why I’m giving chief constables the resources to dramatically increase the number of their officers who carry tasers.”
In March 2020 the Home Office announced another £6.7 million to pay for 8,155 more Tasers. This is on top of the many Taser “stun-guns” currently in service.
Aside from solicitors like me who represent victims of police misconduct, the wider public is right to be concerned about this dangerous use of public funds and the lack of oversight caused by the Taser Group resignations.
- Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic people (BAME) are 7 times more likely to be victims of Tasers than white people. And in 2018, more than half of children Tasered were from BAME groups. These statistics are more alarming when you consider the 39% year-on-year increase. It only adds to grievances with how the police conduct themselves. And it raises concerns that inexperienced officers with itchy trigger fingers will use their Tasers on BAME people. Who will speak up for them now human rights representatives on the Taser Advisory Stakeholder Group have resigned?
- Tasers are also disproportionately used against vulnerable people, including those suffering with mental health issues. The police have also Tasered children as young as 11 and pensioners as old as 77. Is this how we want to treat those most in need in our society?
- We are in difficult times already because of coronavirus (covid-19). The government passed emergency legislation: The Health Protection (Coronavirus) Regulations 2020. The country is anxious and on lockdown. The potential for abuse of power is great. The police seem to be (wrongly) treating breaches of their new-found powers as public order offences, resulting in wrongfully prosecuted cases, such as this one in Newcastle.
Officers may misunderstand the law and consider their authority tested when someone correctly refuses to comply. They may be more tempted to resort to the use of force (and their shiny new Taser weapons) to effect their wrongful interpretation of the law. People will get hurt, or worse. And, if my clients’ past experience is anything to go by, the police will try to cover up their rush to use force.
The police and public would benefit from legal and moral guidance from the experts in Liberty, Inquest, and the others during this challenging time for our country.
Consequences for the National Taser Stakeholder Advisory Group
Pro-Taser campaigners within the National Taser Stakeholder Advisory Group will no doubt feel emboldened by the recent resignations. And they will be relieved to avoid more uncomfortable questions from Liberty, Inquest, and the others.
But, without guidance from these organisations, as I previously described, the public may feel a legitimate sense that the Taser Stakeholder Advisory Group is a sham, and that the UK is becoming a police state ruled with an iron fist. Without the watchful eye of human rights organisations like Liberty, there is a risk that:
- the public will suffer due to increasing Taser misuse, and, as a result,
- the police will undermine the fundamental principle of policing by consent. Without this, public order itself is at risk, making the police’s difficult job harder.
By dismissing the concerns of the resigning parties and giving them no alternative but to leave the Group, the National Police Chiefs Council and police representatives have done more harm than good.
Kevin Donoghue is the Solicitor Director of Donoghue Solicitors. Contact him here.