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The shocking future of UK policing?

Where was your Chief Constable last week? If they were among the 15,000 top cops from around the world attending the International Association of the Chiefs of Police conference in San Diego, maybe it’s time to start worrying. Especially if you’ve ever been on a march or public protest, whether it was in support of field sports or against the war in Iraq, or if you just think others should be able to do so. 

San Diego was where Taser International was showcasing their latest weapon – Taser Shockwave. This is a large-scale, mass-firing Taser weapon which, via a broad arc of simultaneous fire, can cast an electro-shock net over a 100-metre area. Taser International reckons it’s the perfect tool to “instantaneously incapacitate multiple personnel” and they have just started marketing it to the world’s police.  

Remember all those kids and old folk out on the big anti-war and country sports marches? Now, imagine a bit of crowd disorder and the indiscriminate electro-shocking of everyone within firing range. It’s a frightening prospect. 

I don’t want to scaremonger – I’m not suggesting that the Taser Shockwave is going to be a part of day-to-day policing in the UK anytime soon, if at all. But not so long ago, we thought that a similarly muscular approach to law enforcement had no part in the long and much-admired tradition of unarmed British policing.

Yet the last couple of years have seen the start of a drift towards an increasing use of the conventional, hand-held Tasers.   What started as controlled usage by specialist firearms officers has, since 2007, become wider deployment to more officers, permitted to ‘Taser’ people in a much wider set of circumstances. 

There are very real concerns that this potentially lethal electro-shock device, which fires a 50,000-volt charge in five-second bursts into the target, could be made available to every officer in the country. That’s the case in England and Wales, at any rate. In Scotland, any wider roll-out is opposed by ruling party, the SNP, while in Northern Ireland a Belfast child is currently taking Sir Hugh Orde, the PSNI Chief Constable, to court to judicially challenge the current limited deployment.  

Since 2001, Amnesty has been studying the use of Tasers and their effects in the United States, where Tasers are widely used. It’s not encouraging reading, to say the least. To date, 320 people have died after being shocked by Tasers. And they are used way down the ‘force scale’ – only around thirty of those 320 were armed when they were Tasered. Some people have even been shocked while they were already handcuffed. 

Amnesty recognises that police in the UK have an increasingly-difficult job to do, and that they have a duty to protect both the public and themselves from violent attack. International law allows the police to use ‘lethal force’ in certain circumstances – to protect their own lives or those of others – and hence there may be a place for devices like the Taser as an alternative to shooting someone who poses a direct threat to the public.  

But the deployment of potentially-lethal weapons to officers that have not been appropriately trained would be a step in the wrong direction. UK firearms officers receive extensive, ongoing training: this helps ensure that they know not only how to fire their weapon but also when to fire it and when not to. These are split-second calls, made in incredibly stressful situations. They can be life or death decisions. Any police officers using Tasers should be trained to this high standard. And they should only ever be used in the most limited circumstances, where lives are in danger.

When Tasers were first given to UK firearms officers, Amnesty International warned that this could be the start of a slippery slope towards more and more officers being armed with Tasers and using them in an increasing number of situations. This now seems to be happening.

I would never want to find myself blogging about a situation where hundreds of people were indiscriminately electrocuted with a Shockwave, and I hope I never will. But equally I never want to be writing about how many people in the UK have died after being Tasered – and if we are not careful, that prospect could get much closer.  

via Human Rights Now

About Amnesty UK Blogs
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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