In our work, involving scrutinising the actions of police officers and forces in their dealings with the public, we are often posed with the question as to what constitutes a ‘reasonable’, ‘appropriate’ and ‘proportionate’ police response.
A sharp increase in the use of Taser stun guns on members of the public suggests that police forces are increasingly viewing Tasers as a reasonable, appropriate, and proportionate method of policing.
In 2019, Taser use rose by 39 per cent and in March 2020 the Home Office announced that police forces in England and Wales were being given £6.7m to purchase a further 8,155 Tasers, with 41 out of 43 regional forces submitting funding bids under this scheme. The number of incidents where police officers discharged Tasers in England and Wales then rose by nearly a quarter last year.
In August 2020, Home Secretary Priti Patel commissioned the use of Taser 7, a model which will be available to all 43 police forces in England and Wales and one which the Home Office claims is “more accurate, faster and compact”.
Under official assessments, however, tests of the Taser 7 found “higher miss rates” than the two previous models and warned of increased pain and a higher risk of injury. In May 2021, the IOPC said that Tasers were being used disproportionately against black men and mentally ill suspects. Recent analysis of Home Office figures found black people in England and Wales to be almost eight times more likely to have stun guns used against them by police than white people.
The Taser 7 fires electrical probes which detach from the connecting wires after being fired. The Scientific Advisory Committee on the Medical Implications of Less-Lethal Weapons (SACMILL) found that this presents a new injury risk due to the increased likelihood to stray further from the point of aim and hit vulnerable areas of the head and neck, or even miss suspects entirely.
Tasers should be used only where strictly necessary and in a way that is proportionate to the circumstances. The Home Secretary has backed police to get back to “zapping the really bad people”, though we are repeatedly seeing cases where the people being (to use the Home Secretary’s phraseology) ‘zapped’, are not “really bad people”.
In May 2020, a video of a black male being tasered at a petrol station in Stretford was widely circulated on social media. Desmond Ziggy Mombeyarara, who was unarmed, was tasered in front of his five-year-old son who could be heard shouting “daddy” as his father fell to the floor. The IOPC found no wrongdoing on the part of the officers, who claimed to honestly believe a threat of violence. Following this video being circulated the use of tasers came under greater scrutiny.
Officers should always consider the serious risks involved with Taser use
The Police Federation considers Tasers an “essential piece of equipment which have saved many police officers from serious injury or worse”.
At Hudgells we understand police officers often face life-threatening situations, both for themselves and the nearby public, and on many occasions the use of Tasers is necessary.
However, UK police officers should always consider the serious risks involved with Taser use including sudden cardiac arrest, adverse effects on the heart, circulation and respiratory systems and in some cases psychological damage.
Certain categories of persons are recognised to be at higher risk of death or serious injury from being tasered. These include the elderly, children and those who suffer from mental health difficulties.
Police officers are trained to consider these risk factors when determining whether to resort to Taser use. Yet despite this, figures have shown continued use amongst vulnerable groups – with a child as young as 10 being tasered in London and Tasers being aimed or fired at mental health patients 96 times during 2017-18.
These are all statistics which certainly call into question the validity and consistency of police decision-making prior to Tasers being deployed.
‘Proportionate, lawful, accountable and absolutely necessary’
According to the College of Policing, the “duration of the initial discharge and any subsequent discharge must be ‘proportionate, lawful, accountable and absolutely necessary’.”
The College says that incidents where subjects are already contained or restrained may be subject to closer scrutiny or interest and that ‘any medical risk may be increased the longer or more often the device is discharged’.
In July 2013, Jordan Begley, 23, died in hospital of cardiac arrest after being shot with a Taser and restrained by police officers.
The Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) found that the officer who deployed the Taser was guilty of potential misconduct because he extended the use of a Taser longer than the automatic five seconds. It was concluded that the use of a Taser was “not reasonable” and that failings by police officers had contributed to his death.
Questions rightly raised over training of officers before issued with Tasers
To be issued with a Taser, police officers must have completed 18 hours of training and are then required to undergo a compulsory refresher course every year.
The human rights group Amnesty International UK has deemed this ‘wholly insufficient’, given that specially trained firearms officers in the UK undergo months of training before they are deployed to use firearms and are then regularly assessed to maintain their decision-making skills. Such rigorous training standards for firearms officers are justified given the use of a potentially fatal device. Tasers, though not as dangerous as firearms, can cause tragedy. For this reason, Taser training standards seem inadequate in comparison.
The National Police Chiefs’ Council says that “officers who are trained and equipped with Taser must decide on the most reasonable and necessary use of force in the circumstances” with the level of force being “proportionate to achieve the objective”.
The words reasonable, necessary, and proportionate – seen throughout the common law – are open to interpretation.
In our work we have seen incidents where Tasers have been fired for too long and/or at individuals who, though may appear uncooperative, present no threat.
The equation is simple, the more Tasers are normalised as a part of UK policing, the greater risk of death or serious injury to members of the population.