Statewatch News Online: UK/Northern Ireland: Police use of plastic bullets would be 'a recipe for disaster'

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UK/Northern Ireland  
Police use of plastic bullets would be "a recipe for disaster"

Campaigners are calling for a ban on plastic bullets in the UK, arguing that their use in Northern Ireland - where a ban has been demanded for over thirty years - has "triggered civil disturbances and exacerbated situations" and their potential use in the UK risks doing the same.

Clara O'Reilly of the longstanding United Campaign Against Plastic Bullets, based in Belfast, was joined in London at a press conference at the end of June by Paddy Kelly, director of the Children's Law Centre in Northern Ireland; Stafford Scott, a community campaigner from London; and Labour MPs Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, who announced that they would be calling for a parliamentary debate on the need for a ban.

"Government has a role in preventing social disorder and should not be provoking social disorder," said Corbyn, placing blame for last summer's riots squarely on government social policy and arguing that the use of plastic bullets would only inflame any situations of unrest.

Clara O'Reilly said that she and others involved in campaigns in Northern Ireland were "dismayed" by announcements that plastic bullets were being considered as an option for polices forces during the riots, and that their use would be "a recipe for disaster."

Police increase stockpiles and use

In May this year The Guardian reported that London's Metropolitan police "increased its stocks of baton rounds, also known as plastic bullets, to more than 10,000 as a result of the August 2011 riots." In 2009 the force was in possession of 6,424 plastic bullets but as of December 2011 this had increased to 10,024. [1]

Stafford Scott warned that "the government needs to think again," as the use of plastic bullets "will only escalate the troubles and problems." Plastic bullets and other 'less-lethal' weapons are "not an answer to what is happening in Tottenham," said Paddy Kelly.

In Northern Ireland, the actual use of plastic bullets by the Police Service of Northern Ireland has increased considerably in the last three years. According to Ms Kelly, in 2009 their use was authorised on 17 occasions; in 2010 on 243 occasions; and in 2011 on 350 occasions - all of which were between 20th June and 16th July, the time when Protestant communities undertake the "marching season". Police protection is often deemed necessary, frequently leading to heavy-handed police tactics being used against those opposed to the marches.

Plastic bullets were first introduced to Northern Ireland in 1970 and have been used extensively, although they were "considered far too dangerous for use in mainland Britain until 1985 when they proliferated throughout the UK's police forces." [2]

In 1999 guidelines on their use in the UK were relaxed, [3] and since the riots in August 2011 they have been increasingly raised as an option for dealing with unrest. They were last publicly authorised for use in November 2011 before a student demonstration. [4]

Deaths and injuries

Two children have been injured since 2009 by plastic bullets in Northern Ireland, with one child spending time in intensive care with significant liver damage. Since their introduction into Northern Ireland in the 1970s, plastic bullets have killed 17 people in total, nine of them children, and have caused horrific injuries such as shattered hands; brain damage; and the loss of eyes.

Similar incidents have taken place outside of the UK and Northern Ireland. In Spain, 25 people have lost eyes to plastic bullets since 1990. In April this year, a plastic bullet fired by the Basque police force hit 28-year-old Cabacas Liceranzu in the head, causing brain damage and eventually death after he spent four days in a coma. [5]

The European Parliament has in the past passed resolutions calling for a ban on the use of rubber bullets in both Northern Ireland and the European Union as a whole, [6] but governments have been reluctant to introduce any binding measures.

In the UK a number of police officers have warned against the use of plastic bullets as a method of crowd control. Hugh Orde, former chief of the Police Service of Northern Ireland and currently head of the Association of Chief Police Officers, has apparently said that he would rather they were not used at all.

Speakers at the press conference raised concerns that the government is pushing police forces to increase their stockpiles as part of the "security paranoia" surrounding the Olympics, terrorism and the risk of further riots as austerity measures begin to bite.

Ignoring the guidelines?

UK and Northern Ireland police guidelines on the use of plastic bullets state that they should only be used "where other methods of policing to restore or sustain public order have been tried and failed" and where their use "is judged to be necessary to reduce a serious risk of: a) Loss of life or serious injury; or b) Substantial and serious damage to property." Warnings should be given; bullets should be fired at "selected individuals and not indiscriminately at the crowd" and below the ribcage; and should not be fired less than 20 metres from the target. [7]

Injuries and deaths from plastic bullets, however, show that this has frequently not been the case. Even if the guidelines were stringently followed, it would not guarantee that no harm would be done: "Waist height for an adult is torso or head height for a child," said Paddy Kelly.

In 1999, the Patten Report recommended discontinuing the use of plastic bullets "as soon as possible." [8] Clara O'Reilly pointed out that the Patten recommendations "have never been fully implemented," and that instead the types of plastic bullet used by the PSNI were changed on the premise that they would be safer. According to Reilly, "the so-called 'safer option' was in fact more lethal than its predecessor."

The injuries caused by plastic bullets are compounded by the fact that accountability for their use seems to be minimal to non-existent. No individual responsible for firing a plastic bullet that has killed or injured anyone has been brought to justice.

A notable case is that of Nora McCabe, who was killed in 1981 by a plastic bullet fired by a Royal Ulster Constabulary patrol. The campaign group Relatives For Justice takes the view that "a systematic cover-up took place across the Royal Ulster Constabulary and then Director of Public Prosecutions concerning the murder of an innocent mother of three." [9] Over thirty years later, no one has been punished or even charged in relation to her death.


Further concerns were raised by those speaking over other 'less-lethal' weapons in which police forces have demonstrated an interest. Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Bernard Hogan-Howe, announced in November 2011 that he wanted officers to be able to use tasers more often, saying that "every police car in London could be fitted with one." [10] Research has found that tasers have killed at least 500 people over the last decade. [11]

The body that represents police officers, the Police Federation, has joined Hogan-Hower in calling for more tasers to be made available. Currently there are 12,000 tasers in the possession of police forces in England and Wales. The Federation has called for this to be increased to 36,000, putting a taser "in the hands of every frontline officer." [12]

Police officers interviewed by The Guardian and London School of Economics have noted that they "expect a repeat of the riots that spread across England last summer," with concerns over "whether they will have the resources to cope with more unrest on that scale." [13]

Given significant cuts to police budgets, there is likely to be concern that the use of less-lethal weaponry will increase to make up for a lack of manpower.

Advanced technology

In December The Telegraph reported that the Home Office was to begin trials of a laser that "temporarily impairs the vision of anyone who looks towards the source," as a potential way of dealing with civil unrest It has also demonstrated an interest in "wireless electronic interceptors" and "long-range chemical irritant projectiles." [14]

For the Olympics, London police will deploy a Long-Range Acoustic Device - sometimes known more casually as a 'sound cannon' - on the Thames. The device can be used "to send verbal warnings over a long distance or emit a beam of pain-inducing tones." [15] The technology was initially used in the Indian Ocean as part of efforts to deal with piracy off the coast of Somalia, although police forces in Pittsburgh, Pennysylvania, used one against protestors opposing the G20 summit in 2009. [16]

Asked whether the possible use of such weapons would be likely to inflame situations even further, Clara O'Reilly stated that they should be considered as instruments of torture, and that the authorities "should be raising the bar on torture instead of lowering it, but that's exactly what [they're] doing. I'm appalled by all these weapons."

Further reading
The full text of Clara O'Reilly's speech has been posted on the website of the Institute of Race Relations.

[1] Sandra Laville, 'Metropolitan police plastic bullets stockpile up to 10,000 after UK riots', The Guardian, 3 May 2012
[2] European Parliament, 'An appraisal of technologies of political control', 6 January 1998, p.22
[3] 'UK: ACPO relaxes guidelines on plastic bullets', Statewatch Bulletin, Vol 9 No 5, September-October 1999
[4] Cherry Wilson, 'Plastic bullets available to police for Wednesday's student protests', The Guardian, 7 November 2011
[5] '"Less-lethal" weapons and public order: Athletic Bilbao fan killed by a plastic bullet', Statewatch News Online, 15 May 2012
[6] Official Journal of the European Parliament, C149, Volume 25, 14 June 1982, p.67-70
[7] Omega Foundation, 'BATON ROUNDS: A review of the human rights implications of the introduction and use of the L21A1 baton round in Northern Ireland and proposed alternatives to the baton round', p.58
[8] Independent Commission on Policing for Northern Ireland, 'A new beginning: Policing in Northern Ireland', p.54
[9] 'Judicial Review of the killing of Nora McCabe', Relatives for Justice, 27 April 2010
[10] 'Bernard Hogan-Howe wants more police tasers', LBC 97.3, 22 November 2011
[11] 'Tasers have killed at least 500 Americans', Russia Today, 16 February 2012
[12] Rebecca Camber, 'We all want to be armed with Tasers say police officers: Federation writes to PM demanding more stun guns', Daily Mail, 24 June 2012
[13] Paul Lewis and Tim Newburn, 'Reading the Riots study reveals police fears over further unrest', The Guardian, 1 July 2012
[14] Matthew Holehouse, 'Police to test laser that 'blinds rioters'', The Telegraph, 11 December 2011
[15] Gavin Thomas, 'Sonic device deployed in London during Olympics', BBC News, 12 May 2012
[16] Matthew Weaver, 'G20 protesters blasted by sonic cannon',The Guardian, 25 September 2009

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