UK: Public should 'resist drum-beat of calls for all police to carry a Taser'

Responding to the statistics on police deployment of  Tasers over the last year published today by the Home Office, Oliver Feeley-Sprague, Amnesty UK’s Police and Security Programme Director, said:

Amnesty recognises that the police have a duty to protect the public and themselves from harm, but we’ve got serious concerns about the use of Tasers becoming the norm for day-to-day policing.

“Coroners have pointed to the use of a Taser as a key factor in the deaths of two people in the UK, but it’s likely Taser use was a factor in many more deaths. The Taser is a potentially lethal weapon and should be treated accordingly.

"We’re particularly concerned at the alarming rise in over-use against vulnerable and minority groups, including on people with mental health issues and BAME people.

“The British public should resist the drum-beat of calls for every police officer to carry a Taser. More Tasers would inevitably mean more mistakes, more misuse and more tragedy.

“Tasers should only be in the hands of highly-trained officers.”

Tasers: what are they?

Conductive Energy Devices (CEDs), or Tasers as they’re more commonly known, are powerful electrical weapons used by the police with the aim of subduing those they are used against. The pistol-shaped weapons use nitrogen gas to fire sharp darts which can penetrate 5cm of clothing, up to seven metres. 50,000 volts of electricity is then conducted down wires connecting the darts and the Taser gun. The electrical current is designed to cause acute disruption to muscles in the body with the supposed aim of incapacitating individuals. The electrical shocks and pulses are excruciatingly painful, and can often cause a person to fall to the ground, in some instances leading to serious injury especially when falling on hard surfaces or from a height.

Police have the power to use force in order to protect the public and themselves from harm. In instances where police might be required to use force, they need to have a range of less-lethal equipment to enable a graduated response and the minimum harm. As such, when used as a distance-control-weapon, against violent suspects or other individuals who pose an imminent risk to life or very serious injury, Tasers have the potential to be an effective method of policing. Nevertheless, given the inherent risks associated with the misuse of the weapon, including its potential to cause or contribute to deaths, we call for its deployment to be restricted, and very tightly monitored and controlled.

Deaths

In the UK, a total of 18 people have died after a Taser was discharged against them by police. The most recent case was in May last year when a 30-year-old father-of-two died in hospital after he was Tasered by police in Falmouth.

Dalian Atkinson was a 48-year-old former Aston Villa footballer who died shortly after he was Tasered three times by police in 2016. This high-profile case drew attention to the potential danger posed to the public by Tasers. It prompted a wider discussion about the use of Tasers, in particular against minority groups.

In at least two official investigations in the death of two people, coroners have pointed to the use of a Taser as a significant factor in their deaths. In July 2015, an inquest found that restraint techniques, combined with the stress of Taser discharge, materially contributed to the death of 23-year-old Jordon Begley. In October of the same year, an inquest into the death of Andrew Pimlott (32) concluded it was likely that a Taser was the probable cause of a petrol fire that engulfed and killed him. At the time of writing, several inquests and related investigations are ongoing into the role a Taser may have played in a number of further deaths.

A timeline of the reported fatalities linked to the use of Tasers in the UK is outlined below:

  • May 2017: Marc Cole dies in hospital after being Tasered by police.
  • August 2016: Dalian Atkinson, former Aston Villa footballer, dies after reportedly being Tasered three times by police.
  • June 2016: Former soldier Spencer Beynon, who suffered from PTSD, dies after being Tasered by police.
  • January 2016: Tony Hanley, civilian staff member of the Met Police, dies after shooting himself having been Tasered by police.
  • December 2014: Adrian McDonald dies after being Tasered by police who thought he was breaking into a private property. Friends insist he was invited.
  • October 2014: Matthew Williams dies after being Tasered by police after an attack on a woman at a shelter for homeless people. His mother said he had psychiatric problems.
  • August 2013: Police taser Andrew Pimlott after he douses himself in petrol, and he later dies.
  • July 2013: Jordan Begley, an ice cream man, who was suffering a medical episode after a domestic dispute, dies two hours after he is Tasered by police.
  • February 2012: Ernestas Anikinas dies after cutting himself with a broken bottle. He was Tasered by two police officers at the scene.
  • August 2011: Philip Hulmes dies after being Tasered by police who believed he was threatening them with a knife, it later transpired that he had a serious self-inflicted wound to the abdomen.
  • October 2006: Brian Loan dies three days after being shot with a Taser by police.
  • October 2006: Robert Haines is Tasered after being shot by a Metropolitan Police officer.

Controversially in September 2012, Colin Farmer, a man with visual impairment, was Tasered in the back after police mistook his walking stick for a Samurai sword. It is the first case in which a police officer admits unjustified use of a Taser.

According to the report by Reuters from 2017, in the USA more than 1,000 people have died after being Tasered by police. In 153 of these, the Taser has been found to be a contributory factor. The same investigation revealed that nine out of 10 of those who died were unarmed and a quarter were suffering a ‘mental breakdown’ or had a neurological condition. Most alarmingly, Reuters reported that over 100 cases which ended in a fatality began as 911 responses to a medical emergency.

Cases from both the UK and the USA serve to illustrate the potential risk to life posed by Tasers. As well as causing excruciating pain, Tasers can potentially induce paralysis and cardiac arrest. It is therefore often impossible to say with certainty that the use of a Taser was not a contributory factor in the case of a death.

Health risks associated with Taser exposure

The risks associated with the discharge of a Taser are significantly increased when a Taser is misused, either against vulnerable individuals, or if a person is subjected to prolonged or multiple shocks, often in conjunction with other restraint techniques which impair breathing or add additional stress.

Current UK Government medical advice on the health risks associated with Tasers point to a number of very serious risks including sudden cardiac arrest  adverse effects on the heart, circulation and respiratory systems, injuries from falls, injuries from barbed probes striking sensitive areas such as the face, burns when used in conjunction with flammable materials (such as petrol or propellants from some makes of CS gas canisters), as well as unknown psychological impacts following trauma from Taser exposure. The Government’s own scientific studies acknowledge the increased risk of adverse effects when used against children and young people, and other vulnerable population groups. Indeed, certain categories of people are at a markedly higher risk of death or serious injury from electro-shock weapons.

Such high-risk groups include:

•         Children and young people.

•         Pregnant women.

•         The elderly.

•         People who are emotionally disturbed.

•         People with mental illnesses.

•         People under the influence of drugs.

•         People with underlying heart conditions.

Largescale rollout to UK police over last decade

Tasers were first introduced to UK policing in the early 2000s and were initially only provided to specialist firearms officers. In September 2007, the Home Office announced a 12-month trial to equip non-firearms officers with Tasers in ten police constabularies. In 2008 following the conclusion of the trial, the Home Office announced that all frontline officers across England and Wales could be armed with Tasers.

Since 2011, there have been high-profile calls for the increased availability of Tasers to UK police forces. In November of that year, following an incident in north-west London in which four police officers were stabbed, the Met Police Commissioner Bernard Hogan Howe argued that there should be a Taser equipped to every police car.

This year Simon Chesterman of the National Police Chief’s Council (NPCC) said he hoped to see “an increasing rollout of Tasers” despite conceding that electro-shock weapons are sometimes perceived as an “instrument of torture”. Also this year, in his first public speech as Home Secretary, Sajid Javid echoed the call for the increased use of Tasers by UK police which he described as an “important tactical option”.

In a briefing issued to the House of Commons in 2015 the Independent Police Complaint Commission (IPCC) warned against “’mission-creep’ – the use of equipment because it is available”. However, Government published figures for 2011-2016, which show a continued increase in the use of Tasers by UK police, suggest that this fear is already being realised.

In 2017, former Home Secretary, Amber Rudd approved the introduction of the newer and more advanced X2 model Taser to replace the now discontinued and obsolete X26 model previously used by UK police. Unlike its predecessor, the X2 Taser can fire two shots without needing to be reloaded. Following successful lobbying by Amnesty and others, in a welcome development, all X2 models given to UK Police will come equipped with an advanced battery option that cuts power to the device after five seconds. Amnesty’s research pointed to clear risks associated with individuals receiving multiple and prolonged Taser shocks, and therefore having an automatic cut off after five seconds is an important safety enhancement to reduce the risk of misuse.

Training for non-specialist firearm officers

In the UK, specially-trained firearms officers undergo months of training before they are deployed to use weapons. They are then regularly assessed to maintain their weapon skills and decision-making skills. In contrast, training for Taser use takes an average of just three days with an annual refresher. Given that the Taser is a dangerous and potentially-lethal weapon, Amnesty considers this training to be wholly insufficient. Amnesty is calling for enhanced training for Taser use on a par with firearm training, which focuses on regular scenario-based assessments. Officers who fail the assessments should not be able to carry a Taser until they’ve been retrained and have passed the assessment tests.

To maintain the highest possible standards over Taser use within UK policing, the weapon should remain restricted to specially-trained units and its deployment strictly limited. The Taser should remain a piece of specialist equipment subject to specialist procedures. It should not under any circumstances be reclassified as Personal Protective Equipment. To do so, given the current 15-20 per cent failure rate of officers in current training would dangerously lower proficiency standards in Taser use among UK police forces. Mandatory requirements to carry it would either reduce the number of police officers available for duty (given the current failure rates on Taser training courses) or current proficiency standards would need to be significantly reduced in order to allow all officers to carry one.

Official figures show an increase in the use of Tasers against people vulnerable to their use, including children and those with mental illnesses. Home Office data for 2010-2015 showed a 49 per cent increase in cases involving children during that period. This included 158 cases involving someone below the age of 16.

The Government has said that the use of Tasers in mental health settings “should only be a last resort and, where possible, staff trained in de-escalation techniques should always be the first response”. However, an IPCC investigation found that “people with a mental health concern were significantly more likely to have a firearm or Taser used on them” than those who did not. In February this year, the BBC reported that in the first six months of figures being recorded there were 58 cases involving the use of Tasers in mental health hospitals, wards or clinics. People who use psychoactive medication for the treatment of a mental illness are also at a higher risk of cardiac arrest if a Taser is used on them.

Members of minority ethnic groups also face a greater risk of having a Taser used on them by police. Figures published by the Home Office show black and African-Caribbean or mixed white and African-Caribbean people made up 12 per cent of all cases involving the use of Tasers. Compared with the general population, they are three times more likely to have a Taser used on them than someone from a majority white background.

Call for prohibition of use of Taser in ‘drive stun’ mode

As well as distance control, Tasers can also be used as a direct contact electric-shock weapon. The “drive stun” mode is specifically designed for pain compliance. The drive stun weapon is particularly open to abuse as it is portable, simple to deploy and has the capacity to inflict severe pain at the push of a button, often without leaving marks. Moreover, operational experience from police use of Taser has concluded that the drive stun mode is problematic as the weapon in this mode does not incapacitate but instead can aggravate violent responses from individuals. The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, in its 20th report, is also very critical of drive stun mode: “The CPT has strong reservations concerning this latter mode of use. Indeed, properly trained law enforcement officials will have many other control techniques available to them when they are in touching distance of a person who has to be brought under control.” Therefore, Amnesty is opposed to the use of Taser in drive stun mode and calls for it to be explicitly prohibited.

Amnesty International calls on the UK authorities:    

  • To strengthen Home Office guidance on the use of to ensure full compliance with Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights (the right to life). Tasers should be a last resort, used as an alternative to lethal force and only in circumstances where there is an imminent threat to life or of serious injury.
  • To refrain from rolling out Tasers to all police officers, the weapon should remain restricted to specially-trained units and to be used only under specific limited circumstances.
  • To explicitly prohibit the use in direct ‘drive stun’ mode.
  • To increase the training for officers carrying Tasers in line with that for authorised firearms officers. There should be regular and mandatory assessment-based scenario training built into the training package. Officers who fail assessment should not carry Tasers until they’ve been re-qualified.
  • To refrain from establishing a mandatory requirement to carry a Taser in order to maintain the highest possible proficiency standards over Taser use within UK policing.

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