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April 26th 2020

Civil Liberties

Coroner right to raise concerns over training and increased risk to life given rapid rise in police use of Taser guns

Coroner right to raise concerns over training and increased risk to life given rapid rise in police use of Taser guns

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.

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.

Having initially been trialled with UK police forces in 2003 and their use authorised five years later, we are now in a position where nearly a fifth of officers are trained to use the weapons.

Last year Taser use rose by 39% and just last month 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.

Senior police figures have even called for all officers to be allowed to carry them on patrol and last year forces including Northamptonshire Police, Durham Constabulary, and Lancashire Police announced plans to arm all frontline officers.

Such a sharp increase in use of a potentially fatal weapon raises a number of concerns and a UK coroner this week called for a ‘wholesale review’ of the effects of ‘multiple activations’ of Taser stun guns.

This followed an inquest into the death of a 30-year-old man who died after being Tasered three times by police for more than 40 seconds.

The victim suffered from mental health issues and had been behaving in a paranoid and erratic manner after taking cocaine. He had been holding a knife, had self-harmed and was said to have accidentally caused a minor superficial injury to a neighbour.

Following this tragedy, Geraint Williams, the Assistant Coroner for Cornwall, issued a ‘preventing future deaths report’ and warned that more vulnerable people could die unless training for officers is overhauled.

Mr Williams pointed to there being limited data on the effects of using Tasers on vulnerable individuals and said there was no understanding about the potential for incremental risk with multiple Taser activations.

He also highlighted that no training is provided as to the maximum number of activations, nor of an appropriate or safe duration of use.

Taser use carries a great risk when used on vulnerable individuals

The Police Federation considers Tasers an “essential piece of equipment which have saved many police officers from serious injury or worse”.

At Hudgell Solicitors 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 give consideration to 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.

A child as young as 13 has been Tasered by officers and the guns were aimed or fired at mental health patients 96 times during 2017-18.

Recent analysis of Home Office figures has also 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.

These are all statistics which certainly call into question the validity and consistency of police decision-making prior to Tasers being deployed.

Use of Taser guns must be ‘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 weapons and are then regularly assessed to maintain their weapon skills and 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, are capable of causing tragedy. For this reason, Taser training standards seem inadequate in comparison.

Given these concerns and a number of high-profile cases where the deployment of Tasers has been brought into question, it appears that it is time for a wide-ranging review into their use.

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”.

Such words – reasonable, necessary, and proportionate – seen throughout the common law, leave great room for 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 maths is simple, the more Tasers are normalised as a part of UK policing, the greater risk of death or serious injury.

As the National Police Chief’s Council guidance says, officers must always be ‘accountable in law for the amount of force they use’. As more officers are equipped these weapons, the more this message must be emphasised.

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