Worrying Home Office statistics have been published regarding the increased use of Tasers by the police, particularly on those under the age of 18. The trend highlights an interesting question regarding whether the use of equipment, which may cause harm to those upon whom it is used, is justified by the threat that person poses at the time of use.
The police used Tasers on 38,135 occasions over a five year period between 2010 and 2015. The data covers all 43 police forces in England and Wales. In the majority of cases the Taser was drawn but not fired, when a police officer used their Taser in 2014 it was not discharged in 80% of cases.
Taser usage has increased dramatically since 2009 during the first six months of which Tasers were used on 1,297 occasions, 4,999 times during the same period in 2013, and on 5,107 occasions in the first six months of 2014.
The statistics show that the police have disproportionately used Tasers on people of black African-Caribbean or mixed white African-Caribbean ethnicity. Out of the 38,135 instances of Taser use the ethnicity of the person upon whom the Taser was used was recorded on 36,038 occasions. The percentage usage on people of the ethnicities detailed above equated to 12.7%, a high figure considering they account for just 4.4% of the population of the UK. It was therefore demonstrated that a Black person is three times more likely to be involved in a Taser incident than a White person. Asians are less likely to be involved in a Taser incident; 4% of incidents involved Asians whereas they make up 8.1% of the population.
These statistics demonstrate the continuation of a trend whereby police action is disproportionately taken against Black people, who are more likely to be stopped and searched, arrested, and sent to prison than those who are White.
Rick Muir, Director of the Police Foundation said:
“We do not know whether this is due to discrimination by officers or whether this reflects wider social inequalities which means some groups are disproportionately likely to come into contact with the police in situations where a Taser might be deployed.”
Perhaps more pertinent to the debate, as to the necessity for police officers to have Tasers, is their use on those under the age of 18. There has been a dramatic increase in the use of Tasers on children since 2010. In that year there were 349 incidents involving people under the age of 18, compared to 522 in 2014, of which 158 incidents involved a person under the age of 16. In one instance in Hampshire, a police office drew their Taser, but did not fire it, on a nine-year-old boy who reportedly has a knife.
There is certainly a question as to the legitimacy of brandishing a Taser at a person below the age of criminal responsibility.
Given the prevalent and increasing use of Tasers on those under the age of 18, one must ask whether children are more dangerous now than they were previously? The police seemed capable of dealing with incidents without the use of Tasers in the past; in fact I do not recall a public outcry from officers unable to cope with unruly teenagers without the assistance of an electric stun gun.
I appreciate that the safety of police officers is a valid and very real concern, and I would not wish for any action to be taken that would put them at unnecessary risk, however giving them the option to electrocute their way out of difficult, albeit potentially dangerous situations, may not always be a proportionate response, especially when dealing with children.
There are certainly cases when a Taser may be very useful, and perfectly legitimately used, for example to prevent apparent and imminent harm to the public, or to prevent the person upon whom the Taser is used from harming themselves. What I believe we must be mindful of is the evolution of police officers whereby an instinct to draw their Taser, believing it will diffuse all situations, is created. The use of Tasers should not become common place, for the more frequently a Taser is removed from its holster, the greater the likelihood of it being discharged.
Tasers, if used, should be a matter of last resort to prevent imminent harm. I am not convinced that pointing a Taser at an individual is the best way to diffuse an already tense and potentially dangerous situation. It is however preferable to pointing a firearm. A Taser’s greatest asset is that it is not a gun. There is a much stronger argument for their use, in certain circumstances, instead of the use of deadly force; that is not to say that Tasers are entirely safe, 10 people’s deaths have been linked to Tasers in the past decade.
A National Police Chiefs Council spokesperson defended the use of Tasers:
“Every use of Taser is reported and scrutinised by a supervisor and officers are personally accountable to the law each time their Taser is drawn.
Officers receive specialist training that helps them to determine the best course of action in resolving a violent or potentially violent situation. Taser is one of many tactical options a police officer can use.
In 80% of Taser uses in the UK, the mere presence of the device is enough to resolve the violent or potentially violent situation without any force being used.”
The use of Tasers should not be allowed to become common place, the danger presented by their harmless nature in comparison to guns does not mean that they are in fact harmless, and must not be used as an ‘easy option’ to control the public. There must be a robust system whereby their use is overseen, and the officers held accountable for instances when they feel it necessary to remove their Taser from its holster. This is to become ever more important since the Police Federation voted in favour of equipping all police officers with Tasers, and as such, the frequency with which they are used will inevitably increase.