Tasers: shocks and secrets | Belfast and Beyond | 22 Aug 2008 | Amnesty International UK

Tasers: shocks and secrets

As the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) deliver their first Taser shock, it's been announced that an application has been made for a judicial review into the decision-making process which led to the deployment of the controversial weapon here.

Campaigning victims group Relatives for Justice said yesterday that a family has lodged papers in the Belfast High Court naming Chief Constable Sir Hugh Orde, the NI Policing Board and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Shaun Woodward, as respondents in the legal challenge.

The review of the Chief Constable's decision is likely to focus on his alleged failure to follow the proper statutory process for equality impact assessment before introducing the weapons.

The query against the Policing Board the Secretary of State will centre on a separate legal point. Relatives for Justice Chairperson Clara Reilly (whose friend Emma Groves was blinded by an army plastic bullet in 1971 and hence has rather long-standing concerns about 'less lethal' weaponry in the hands of the security forces), said in a statement yesterday:

"The action will also include the Secretary of State and the Policing Board who ultimately retain jurisdiction under Section 6 of the Police Act to prevent their piloting and actual deployment from the outset – a duty that they failed to discharge and which we believe will be a central feature of the forthcoming litigation."

Despite the publicly stated opposition of the Northern Ireland Policing Board, PSNI Chief Constable forged ahead with a pilot of the electro-shock weapons at the beginning of the year. With the expected six month pilot period at an end as of late June, it remains unclear if last weekend's use by the PSNI of the Taser (welcomed by the sister of the man Tasered, it should be noted) was part of an extended or rolling trial or part of a more general, post-pilot deployment of the weapons.

In any case, it is clear that the Taser pilot went ahead without the PSNI first carrying out an Equality Impact Assessment of the weapons, as would seem to be required by Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act. Although the PSNI completed the EQIA some months ago, they have delayed publication of its findings.

As we note in our official response to this first use of Taser by the police here, Amnesty considers a rigorous training regime for authorised Taser officers as an absolute prerequisite to any deployment:

"Because these weapons are potentially lethal, police officers must be trained to the same high standard as they are for using a firearm, receiving intensive, ongoing training to ensure that they only use these dangerous weapons in very limited circumstances."

Indeed, back in January, when the device was first introduced, concerns were already being raised about the PSNI training prgramme. Prof Monica McWilliams, head of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission noted publicly:

"We are surprised that the police are deploying this weapon after only a two-day training programme."

However, the police themselves made much of the quality of their Taser training programme when, at the start of the year, they announced the Taser roll-out in the face of opposition from the Policing Board.

So, why are they now being so coy about the training regime? The PSNI has recently refused (for the second time) a Freedom of Information inquiry, which I first lodged back in February, asking for information about their training programme for officers to be issued with Tasers.

After admitting that they forgot (oops!) to send me the verdict of the PSNI's own Freedom of Information internal review panel back in April, the police last week finally told me that the panel:

"considered that the ability of police to honour these [policing] obligations could be hindered by the release of information outlining training methodology."

I have to admit that I don't see it myself, and think that the police might actually be able to improve public confidence in their use of Tasers if they were more open about this and other matters relating to the weapon.

For now, the debate continues. We await with interest next month's Policing Board meeting, where the issue will come up for debate, as well as the possible judicial review, which could also be heard next month.

Watch this space.

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