Police use of Tasers

The recent case of the death of Dalian Atkinson in Telford after being Tasered by West Mercia Police has highlighted the police use of Tasers and whether they are used appropriately in all circumstances by trained police who are acting in accordance with the College of Policing’s Authorised Professional Practice each time they are used. 

A Taser is a device designed to temporarily incapacitate a person through use of an electrical current which temporarily interferes with the body’s neuromuscular system. This usually causes the person to freeze or fall over, giving officers time to restrain them. It projects a pair of barbs or darts attached to insulated wires which attach to the subject’s skin or clothing. The device has a maximum range of 21 feet and delivers its electrical charge in a five-second cycle which can be stopped, extended or repeated. The Taser is one of a number of tactical options available to police officers when dealing with an incident where there is the potential for harm – to potential victims and/or the public, the police officers themselves, or the individual.

The critical point about the use of Tasers is explained in HMIC’s first review of the use of Tasers by police forces, which formed part of its national overview of police forces published as the ‘PEEL: Police Legitimacy 2015’ report:

“When police and required to use force to achieve a lawful objective, such as making a lawful arrest, acting in self-defence or protecting others, that force must be reasonable in the circumstances. If it is not, the officer is open to criminal or misconduct proceedings. It may also constitute a violation of human rights of the person against whom the force was used.” (p.52)

In the 2015 national overview, HMIC found that “in our first inspection of the use of Tasers, forces had robust oversight systems in place, officers were well-trained, and use of Tasers was fair and appropriate.” (p.57)

However, there are variations between forces – a fact highlighted in a recent tweet by an HMIC Inspector, Zoe Billingham. The PEEL 2015 Legitimacy report provides a graph of Taser use per 10,000 population for the 12 months to 31 December 2104 showing 12 Forces at 1% use or less but five Forces – West Midlands, Greater Manchester, Staffordshire, Humberside and Lincolnshire – at 3% use or more, with Linconshire topping the scale at 4.5% use. West Mercia Police’s use is slightly below the England and Wales average. (see p.53).

In its PEEL Legitimacy report on West Mercia Police, HMIC reported it “is satisfied that the majority of Taser use in West Mercia Police is both fair and appropriate”. However, the report also identified two cases where HMIC considered its use to be inappropriate:

“One involved firing a Taser at a man while he was running away, having hidden after committing an assault and pushing a police officer to evade capture. At the point the Taser was fired the man did not pose a threat to the officer or anyone else. The other case involved a man detained in hospital under the Mental Health Act who locked himself in a room, threatening to attack police if they entered. The other case involved a man detained in hospital under the Mental Health Act who had locked himself in a room, threatening to attack police if they entered. Police forced entry after five minutes of unsuccessful negotiation, the man promptly picked up a metal bar and an officer used the Taser. Prior to police entry, the man posed no threat to himself or others and further negotiation may have resolved the situation without the need to use a Taser.” (p.37).

Some PCCs have responded to the concern about the use of Tasers by setting up ‘scrutiny panels’ separate from Police and Crime Panels to examine Taser use.

Commissioner Sue Mountstevens’ new Taser Scrutiny Panel consists of four members of the public (who are members of other current Independent Panels) who will work to assess appropriate Taser use, highlight examples of good practice and make comments about areas of concern. The Panel, who will meet every six months, will produce a report that will be given to the Commissioner.  This report, together with a response from the Constabulary, will be published on the PCC’s website.

Similarly, in Staffordshire, local Safer Neighbourhood Panels, set up by Staffordshire’s Police and Crime Commissioner Matthew Ellis to scrutinise and shape policing, have been trained to examine the police use of Taser in their communities.

Panel members who have received some training will examine records of local Taser use, including video recorded on police body cameras, to make sure Tasers are being used appropriately. This initiative follows a review of the way police use Taser in Staffordshire by the county-wide independent Ethics, Transparency and Audit Panel (ETAP), commissioned by the PCC in 2014. This resulted in nine clear recommendations from ETAP to improve the recording of Taser use and provide more rigorous check and balances.

Where these separate scrutiny bodies do not exist, Police and Crime Panels might consider undertaking a similar exercise, particularly if there are current concerns about the use and deployment of Tasers by their Force.

Published: 27 August 2016

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