Tasers so who polices the police?

This Taser campaign hasn’t been at all what I expected it to be.

To recap, Tasers are fundamentally dangerous weapons, long known to Amnesty researchers as the tool of choice for torturers because of their ability to inflict intense pain, leaving little or no marks. A series of Amnesty reports have identified abuses carried out by police forces in countries such as Canada and the United States, where Tasers are routinely carried by patrol officers and used as a means of forcing compliance, rather than to defuse violent situations. Australia too, is having its problems.

In Scotland Tasers are held only by highly trained and accountable Firearms Officers. Not coincidentally we are not aware of any examples of these weapons being misused.

So when Strathclyde Police announced that they would be issuing Taser weapons to 30 ordinary officers on the beat, presumably with a view to setting this up as ongoing practice, I rolled up my sleeves for a public debate about the merits (or otherwise) of arming beat officers with dangerous firearms and whether this would subdue unruly citizens or increase tension between police officers and the communities they serve.

Yet it never really came to that because a more fundamental question came to the fore.

Strathclyde Police, backed by the Scottish Government, stated that deployment of Taser weapons was an "operational matter" – in other words a decision for the Chief Constable alone. Hence the unilateral announcement of the Taser pilot without engagement from either national or local government, or indeed any of the other agencies involved in violence reduction and safer communities.

Amnesty International pointed out that Tasers are covered by Section 5 of the 1968 Firearms Act and defined as "weapons under general prohibition" – so there is no licensing scheme for Tasers. In Scotland you need to have written authorisation from Scottish Government Ministers before acquiring them. There was silence for a while and then a very intriguing response.

Agents of the Crown (in this case including the police), we were told, are only bound by legislation if it specifically mentions them. As the Crown was not mentioned in the Section 5 prohibition they were not bound by it. Well, we straight away commissioned expert legal advice on the matter, which concluded that this was "not supportable in law". But what about the practical implications of such an approach?

The Crown is mentioned in the Firearms Act, in relation to various clauses relating to gun licenses. But not in the clauses that forbid carrying bombs, grenades and rocket launchers, nor in the clauses that forbid giving firearms to children or to people who are drunk or insane. Did the legislators really intend that police should be free to do these things?

Looking at other legislation, the Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation (Scotland) Act 2005 makes no reference to the Crown, suggesting that servants of the Crown are not bound by the provisions which make this heinous act an offence. Was that the intention of the Scottish Parliament in passing this legislation?

I have summarized our concerns and sent them to the Scottish Government, but am now told that "It is not for the Scottish Government to enter into discussion on detailed legal interpretation of the provision in the Firearms Act". Rather a change of heart from the people who supplied the original argument about Crown immunity. My question on the (Scottish) FGM Act went unanswered. I am still waiting to hear back from the police.

At the start of this campaign Amnesty International pointed to Scotland’s culture of policing by consent and felt able to say that Scottish police "set the standard when it comes to policing around the world". But even the best police in the world need transparent procedures by which they are held accountable.

With both the SNP and Labour supporting the idea of one merged, national police force in Scotland I presume there will be some legislation soon after the May election to bring this about. Such legislation would provide an ideal opportunity to clearly set out the mechanisms by which the police will be accountable to the public they serve.

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