I thought I’d start out this post about Home Secretary Jacqui Smith authorising the funding for 10,000 50,000 volt Tasers to be issued to 30,000 police officers in England and Wales, with a comment by Mark Thomas:
After Jacqui Smith decided to play office Santa to the police by promising them 10,000 Tasers, I trawled through various comment boards and websites. Perhaps unsurprisingly there were lots of folk for whom my zapping wish list (with the exception of the beloved Sachs) was just the start.
If their comments offer any insight, then many of us believe that it is “Better to Taser people than shoot them dead”. Indeed, this is true. Most things are a better option than being shot dead, including non-consensual sex with the Duke of Edinburgh – though this might be a borderline example.
But amid the cliches there is a valid argument. It is better to be Tasered than shot dead, and if these are the only two options available, then any enlightened soul would opt for the Taser. But this scenario relies on the police or public being in immediate life-threatening situations, a legal conclusion that Keir Starmer, the new director of public prosecutions, arrived at in his report on the use of stun weapons.
So Tasers can only be used in life-threatening situations? Not exactly – police can use them if officers face “violence or threats of violence of such severity that they will need to use force to protect the public [and] themselves”. This might look OK at first glance, but “threats of violence” are a far cry from life-and-death situations. It could be a drunk shouting “I’m going kill you!” moments before he says, “You’re my best mate and I love you forever.”
Smith’s decision follows year-long trials of Tasers by frontline officers in 10 police forces. The guns, only deployed in the UK by specialist firearms officers, deliver a powerful electric shock that temporarily incapacitates targets and causes them to “freeze” or fall to the ground.
Smith’s decision was warmly praised by the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO):
which said trials showed in the majority of cases Tasers helped police resolve incidents without resorting to other weapons.
Derek Talbot, Acpo spokesman on Tasers said: “This reinforces the value of Taser as a useful tool to make the public and officers safer and to resolve potentially violent situations effectively and rapidly.
“The conclusions of this trial provide further evidence that Taser is a proportionate, low risk means of resolving incidents where the public or officers face severe violence or the threat of such violence which cannot safely be dealt with by other means,” he said.
Let’s look at ‘proportionate’ and ‘low-risk’, because to believe ACPO and Smith these two things have to be true. First look at this video and tell me if you think the Taser use is ‘proportionate’:
This analysis of this police attack, which happened in Pittsburgh, questions how a ‘less lethal weapon’ would be handled when used by trigger-happy police thugs:
Taser advocates often pose a false question, says Gan Golan of Los Angeles, a recent MIT grad who did his master’s thesis on the increasing use of “less-lethal” weaponry. The choice communities are given is “What would you have us use — guns or less lethal weapons?” But in reality, he says, “police are still using their lethal weapons when they should be using their less-lethal weapons, and they are using their less-lethal weapons when they should be using nothing at all.”
Vic Walczak, legal director of ACLU Pennsylvania, agrees: “We see Tasers used for what we call ‘contempt of cop’ violations — swearing, questioning their authority. Tasers are a way to exact street justice. It’s disconcerting to see police officers using Tasers in circumstances where essentially no force can be justified. De’Anna is, what, 5-foot-2, 110 pounds? And to my knowledge [she] is not a black-belt martial-arts expert. The police are much larger and have training in hand-to-hand combat. You can’t tell me that police couldn’t bring her under control without a Taser. … If the [city’s] policy says under these circumstances it’s appropriate to use the Taser, I think there’s a huge problem with that.”
And that’s the heart of the problem because Jacqui Smith says:
“I am proud that we have one of the few police services around the world that do not regularly carry firearms and I want to keep it that way.
“But every day the police put themselves in danger to protect us, the public. They deserve our support, so I want to give the police the tools they tell me they need to confront dangerous people.”
Considering she has presided over an increasingly politicised police force, clamping down (often violently) on peaceful political protesters and the media (and now politicians), her words should be seen with alarm. Her attempt to increase the timescale for detention without charge to 42 days came because the police said they needed it, not because there was a genuine need which couldn’t be met in multiple other ways with existing legislation. She’s refused to interfere in the police investigation and arrest of Damian Green. Now she’s caved in yet again to the police who now say they need Tasers. Why would they use them any differently than the cop in the video, considering the British police behave just the same way under just the same circumstances:
Considering the Metropolitan Police’s record of killing innocent people with guns and their increasingly rogue behaviour, it’s interesting that the Metropolitan Police Authority has rejected Smith’s offer, saying:
“The MPA recognises the potential to cause fear and damage public confidence if the use of Tasers is extended to non-specialist trained police officers and is perceived by the public to be indiscriminate.
“There is no doubt that in some circumstances Tasers are a very effective alternative to firearms or asps [metal batons] but their use must be tightly controlled and we have seen no case made out to extend their availability.”
Nor have I. In addition to being hardly ‘proportionate’ weapons, they’re hardly ‘low-risk’ either:
Oliver Sprague, an arms expert at Amnesty International UK, said: “We don’t oppose the use of Tasers as long as it’s by a limited number of highly-trained specialist officers, responding to genuinely life-threatening or very dangerous situations.
“Tasers are potentially lethal weapons, which are already linked to numerous deaths in North America, and that’s why wide deployment without adequate training is a dangerous step in British policing.”
He said the human rights group’s research showed that 320 people had died after being Tasered in the US since 2001, and that 90% of those killed were shocked multiple times and were not armed.
In looking at proportionality and the level of risk posed to potential victims of these weapons, you must also factor in who will be using these devices and how uncritical the oversight is over them:
The Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) has said of Tasers:
The Independent Police Complaints Commission said 35 complaints had been made against the use of Tasers since they were introduced in 2004 for use by firearms officers in the UK. The IPCC added that it backed the extension of the use of Tasers.
It all points to an alarming picture of a police force which has not made a genuine case for using these weapons on this scale, and of a weak Home Secretary who will do anything to be seen as strong, which invariably means bending over backwards to accommodate whatever the police wants. Amnesty International’s report on the use of Tasers in the US is damning. Given that the violent culture of the police in the UK isn’t far removed from that of forces in the US, it’s difficult to conceive that similar case studies won’t spring up rapidly with the deployment of 10,000 Tasers, particularly when:
The Home Office says that before the new Tasers are issued, all officers who use them will need to attend an 18-hour training course, spread over two to three days.
They will also be required to attend an annual “refresher” course to keep them up to date with developments.
‘Proportionate’? ‘Low-risk’? Given all the evidence, and the cop-out deployment guidelines Mark Thomas details in this first article, I see a recipe for disaster. Attacks on the unarmed and the most vulnerable in society who are already routinely abused by the police are only likely to increase, as is the culture of using weapons when none is even called for. The IPCC’s report does not justify Smith’s decision, based as it is on limited usage (making the conclusions difficult to extrapolate for the use of 10,000 Tasers), a stipulated requirement for greater training (which she is not providing), a restricted requirement for disclosure of Taser use for the report, and no acknowledgment of the dangers of police misbehaviour (just see my next post to see a recent example). It’s also worth bearing in mind that the IPCC has recently been by its own advisory body as guilty of poor decision making, favouritism towards the police and indifference to complainants.