By Andrew Petherbridge, Civil Liberties Specialist, Hudgell Solicitors – an expert in handling claims against the police for unlawful arrest, unlawful detention, assault and human rights breaches
Figures revealing the increasing use of Taser guns by police officers across England and Wales when handling situations involving children has stirred a national debate as to whether they remain an appropriate measure for police to use on our streets.
Introduced by then Home Secretary David Blunkett back in 2004 following a trial in five UK forces, there has been a continual increase year after year in usage of the electronic stun guns, which shoot two darts of 50,000-volt charge into a suspect’s muscles, causing temporary paralysis.
Figures show police incidents involving Tasers increased from 3,128 occasions in 2009 to 10,380 in 2013, as would be expected as more forces have trained officers in its use.
However, it is the release of new figures, which have revealed 431 children were involved in Taser related incidents with the police in 2013, which has now raised more eyebrows with regard to the suitability of their use.
This figure involving 10 to 17-year-olds represents a 38 per cent increase from 2012, as nationally, Tasers were fired 37 times at children in this age range in 2013.
Let’s not forget, the guidance for police is that Tasers should only be used to control situations where they are facing violence, or threats of violence of such severity that they would need to use force to protect the public, themselves or the subject.
However, given the youngest person to have a Taser aimed at them was 11, while the youngest person actually fired upon was just 14, questions are being asked as to how closely that guidance is being followed.
Has the use of Tasers become more commonplace and increasingly the method of choice, rather than being an alternative in situations which are truly out of hand?
For the police, this is a serious issue to explore. Obviously, we are not aware of the details regarding each specific case, but it is hard to comprehend that Tasers were the only option for officers in all 400 plus cases last year.
Legally, there is no limit on the age of the person that Taser can be used upon, and police point to the fact that lots of violent crime is carried out by people under the age of 18. They also stress that, in the vast majority of situations (around 1 in 5), the Taser is not fired at all.
However, in each case, an officer must be able to justify their use of Taser to the standard of the criminal court.
In my work for Hudgell Solicitors, as a specialist in handling claims against the police for unlawful arrest, unlawful detention, assault and human rights breaches, I see the fine line police often tread between acting appropriately or actually being guilty of assault themselves.
Bringing a Taser into the equation, and firing it when not 100 per cent necessary, could well amount to an officer facing either a criminal or civil claim.
Now, Mr Blunkett himself is leading calls for a review of Taser use, urging chief constables and police and crime commissioners in England and Wales to look at who authorised officers to use Tasers in these cases, and whether there were genuine alternatives.
“I think it’s time for a review that incorporates the use of Tasers with advice and support on how to deal with difficult situations,” he said.
“For a youngster, 11-years-old, a Taser is not in my view an appropriate way of dealing with a situation which clearly must have been out of hand, but where we need to train people to use much more traditional alternatives.”
I agree. There must be real concern now given these new figures about the potential for ‘mission-creep’ – the use of equipment simply because it is available.
That can never be accepted.