UK: Thousands more Tasers issued to police in London

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26.04.2013 - Police in London are being armed with an increasing number of "less lethal" weapons. Taser guns - electroshock weapons that deliver up to 1,200 volts into the body through metal probes that pierce the skin - are being made available to hundreds more police officers, leading to growing unease amongst politicians and the public. Concerns are being raised over the necessity and likely effectiveness of an increase in the use of the electroshock weapons, and an attempt is underway to have the legality of the decision-making process behind Taser use assessed by the courts.

Powering up

In early 2012 Metropolitan police commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe announced that he wanted two Taser-equipped cars on patrol in each of London's 32 boroughs at any one time, and subsequently a two-stage process began.

First, Tasers - electroshock weapons that deliver up to 1,200 volts into the body through metal probes that pierce the skin - became available to a wider number of officers in the Metropolitan police's Territorial Support Group.

The second step - "equipping and training officers in each of the 32 boroughs to support two response vehicles carrying Taser on a 24/7 basis" - is currently under way, and the "rollout" will, according to The Guardian, "cost the Metropolitan Police Service over £800,000 initially, and increase the number of Taser guns available to officers from 800 to 6,500." [1]

Amnesty International has repeatedly criticised the use of Tasers by police, in particular in the USA. In February 2012, the NGO called "for tighter rules to limit the use of the potentially lethal weapon" in America when the number of people who died after being shocked by Tasers reached 500 in a decade. [2]

In the UK, the human rights organisation has insisted that Tasers are used "only in the strictest set of circumstances, which involves a threat to life or very serious injury." Last year a blind man was tasered after police believed that his walking stick was a samurai sword, [3] and in August 2011 two people died after the weapons were used on them. Three people have died in total in the UK following Taser use. [4] The high-profile manhunt for Raoul Moat saw police use a type of Taser that failed central government assessments; the Home Office found it to be "highly unreliable and inaccurate." [5]

Last month the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) agreed to take on the complaint of a fireman who says he was "abused, beaten and tasered by police officers in 2011." Edric Kennedy-Macfoy "claimed he was trying to assist police after he witnessed a young male throw a brick at a police van," but instead was arrested for obstruction and resisting arrest. [6] And just a few days ago, the IPCC launched an investigation after a man carrying a can of flammable liquid was tasered and subsequently suffered "serious burns", described as "life-changing". [7]

Official guidance on Taser usage issued in 2008 says, amongst other things, that the weapon "is one of a number of tactical options available to an officer who is faced with violence or the threat of violence... It must not be used to inflict severe pain or suffering on another... The duration of the initial discharge and any subsequent discharge must be proportionate, lawful, appropriate, necessary and non-discriminate, in all the circumstances." [8]

The "rollout"

Last year officers in 20 boroughs received increased numbers of Tasers and training in their use. This year, increased training and weaponry have already been given to forces in boroughs including Croydon, Haringey, Havering, Kensington and Chelsea, Lewisham, and Tower Hamlets. [9] In what appears to be a sign of the urgent desire to provide the police with more weaponry, "training for all boroughs is expected to end by May, far ahead of the set deadline of August." [10]

In Hackney, where 40 officers have now been trained to carry the weapons, local people gathered on Monday night to voice their opinions at a meeting called by Stop Criminalising Hackney Youth, an organisation set up in late 2011 to offer support to young people and their families involved in or affected by the August riots.

Emeka Egbuonu, a youth worker and author, noted that "animosity between some young people and police is already at an all-time high," and a number of young people with whom he had spoken were concerned that equipping police with Tasers may simply lead to more conflict as people sought to arm themselves in response.

Other speakers echoed this fear, and there was a clear concern that at a time of harsh austerity measures and cuts to local services and facilities, "Tasers are being introduced as a method of social control," as Dean Ryan, a youth worker, put it.

"We're seeing the rich get richer and the poor getting poorer, and the government's really clamping down on people," he said, adding: "If we don't stop this we will see deaths on the street, and as we've seen before, they'll get away with murder." Ryan referred to the fact since 1990, nearly 1,500 people have died in custody or following contact with the police, yet no state official has ever been found guilty for any of these deaths. [11]

Angus Mulready-Jones, a Labour councillor for the Dalston ward in Hackney, was more cautious in his statements, but was clearly concerned about the increased number of Tasers being put into use by the police: "the police aren't asking for more Tasers because they want to use them less," he said.

A solution looking for a problem?

Mulready-Jones went on to say that "there hasn't been a stated reason for [the increase in Tasers], and that's part of the problem… I'm still struggling to understand what problem this is supposed to be solving."

Metropolitan Police Commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe has said that his initial decision to expand the use of Tasers came "following a series of incidents in which officers sustained serious injury while attempting to subdue suspects," [12] including a situation in which four officers "were seriously injured by a knifeman." [13]

The police have yet to provide any statistics or evidence that indicates a clear need for the weapons, and one recent study show a significant drop in almost all types of violent crime, which "has halved from its peak in 1995, when the survey estimated over 4.2 million incidents." Official statistics also show a decrease in recorded violent crime. [14]

Earlier this year, police in Haringey - where the August 2011 riots began, following the deadly shooting by police of Mark Duggan - decided to use Twitter to relay "information given in a number of presentations to Haringey community members by the Met's lead Taser instructor," Sergeant Andy Harding. [15]

In an attempt to justify the need for more Tasers to deal with violent incidents, Haringey police included a link to a video that shows police officers in a stand-off with a man wielding a machete. The Telegraph notes that "as he lunges forward towards the police, one officer uses the wheelie bin as a makeshift shield, protecting himself from the knife."

In fact, the video seems to show the opposite: a police officer pushing a wheelie bin into the man, which appears to provoke him into lunging towards the other officers, swinging the machete back and forth. He is eventually subdued by officers using riot shields, which would seem to suggest that rather than more weaponry, better tactical training may be more useful to the police.

Legal challenge, political inquiry

Concerns over providing the police with more weaponry sit alongside suspicions that the decision to increase Taser numbers - currently subject to a legal challenge - was taken in a secretive, undemocratic manner.

Sophie Khan, a solicitor-advocate and director of the Police Action Centre, told Monday's meeting in Hackney that the wider introduction of Tasers across London took place with no public consultation and with no information being provided to the public or elected officials aside from the number of Tasers to be introduced, and the number of officers who would be trained to use them.

There are strong suspicions that when oversight for the police in London passed from the Metropolitan Police Authority (MPA) to the Mayor's Office for Policing and Crime (MOPAC) in January 2012, the institutional gap was used by Commissioner Hogan-Howe to ensure the rollout of vastly increased numbers of weapons. Khan said that the decision-making process leading to the vast increase in Taser numbers "is not, in my view, lawful."

The solicitor is bringing a claim before the High Court that the Met Commissioner acted "unlawfully by approving the mass deployment of the weapon without public consultation," on behalf of an unnamed 26-year-old man "who claims to have suffered breathing difficulties after he was Tasered by officers in November 2011." [16]

Members of the Police and Crime Committee of the London Assembly - a body made up of elected representatives - recently began their own inquiry into the expansion of Taser use, with a Taser Working Group currently investigating "how decisions to authorise or expand the use of less lethal weaponry are made, including the decision to expand Taser in Spring 2012," and the approach of the London Mayor's Office for Policing and Crime (MOPAC) "to monitoring the deployment of less lethal weaponry and how it holds the Metropolitan Police Service to account for its use." [17]

MOPAC's predecessor, the MPA, was responsible for overseeing the work of the Metropolitan Police until January 2012. In 2007 its members agreed to limited use of Tasers in London by certain members of the Territorial Support Group, but were sceptical about a proposal from the Home Office in 2008 that recommended the expansion of Tasers to non-firearms officers.

A London Assembly briefing on its forthcoming inquiry into Taser use notes some of the concerns held by the MPA, originally published in 2009:

- Figures from the expanded Taser pilot continued a historical trend of a disproportionate use against people from ethnic minorities and those with a mental health issue;
- There were significant concerns about broader health issues, particularly as more people with complex medical needs become exposed to risk of being Tasered, and how this issue would be monitored and evaluated in the future;
- Concerns about the effect of wider Taser use on the relationship between the public and the police, particularly if it was perceived that officers were using it in cases where it was deemed unfair or unnecessary.

The MPA said that any future expansion "should be based on a clear business case that demonstrates irrefutable need, that cannot be met by current provision and must be balanced against the potential risks i.e. confidence within the wider community as well as London's BME [black and minority ethnic] communities." [18]

What's next?

Minutes from meetings of the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) indicate that there have been discussions over extending the use of Tasers even further, to allow their use by volunteer officers - special constables - described as "trained volunteers who work with and support their local police," and who, after completing their training "have the same powers as regular officers and wear a similar uniform."

In April 2004, at two separate ACPO meetings, the issue of "ACPO armed policing: Taser and the special constabulary" was on the agenda. [19] Neither set of minutes, however, reveal any information to the public. A subheading on both documents states "see separate restricted and non-FOI [Freedom of Information Act] disclosable minutes attached."

There have been some calls - for example, from the Gloucestershire wing of the Police Federation and Hampshire's Police and Crime Commissioner - for every police officer to be armed with a Taser. [20] It was announced in late March that 200 more police officers in Hampshire are to be trained in Taser use, and Sussex police have also given 160 officers training to use the electroshock weapons. [21] West Yorkshire police used Tasers nearly 1,000 times over between January 2011 and January 2013, "an average of more than once a day." [22]

The Police Federation's national body has called for 36,000 officers to be armed with Tasers and training in how to use them, approximately one quarter of all officers in England and Wales. [23]

[1] Sandra Laville, Metropolitan police to roll out Tasers in response cars across London, The Guardian 17 January 2013; London Assembly Police and Crime Committee, Governance of Taser and other less-lethal weaponry
[2] USA: Stricter limits urged as deaths following police Taser use reach 500, Amnesty, 16 February 2012
[3] Amnesty response to Police Tasering a blind man mistakenly believed to be carrying a sword, Amnesty, 18 October 2012
[4] Helen Carter and Sandra Laville, Taser deaths investigated by police watchdog, The Guardian, 24 August 2011
[5] UK: Use of Taser XREP in Raoul Moat case was 'deplorable', Amnesty, 27 September 2011
[6] Bart Chan, IPCC takes on fireman's police brutality complaint, The Voice, 28 March 2013
[7] Cliff Caswell, Taser incident: Man suffers serious burns, Police Oracle, 22 April 2013
[8] Association of Chief Police Officers, Operational Use of Taser by Authorised Firearms Officers, December 2008
[9] Tasers ready to be used by bobbies on the beat in Croydon, Croydon Guardian, 18 January 2013; Police officers in Haringey equipped with Tasers as part of London-wide roll-out, Tottenham & Wood Green Journal, 25 March 2013; Ian Weinfass, Havering Police officers given access to tasers, Romford Recorder, 15 January 2013; Camilla Horrox, Taser equipped police vehicles coming to Kensington and Chelsea, Kensington & Chelsea Chronicle; Mark Chandler, Lewisham police start carrying Tasers, This is Local London, 26 March 2013; Ruchi Srivastava, Non-specialist police to use tasers in Tower Hamlets, East London Lines, 15 January 2013
[10] Keeping Promises, The Job, April/May 2013, p.15
[11] INQUEST, Deaths in police custody
[12] London Assembly Police and Crime Committee,
Governance of Taser and other less-lethal weaponry
[13] Justin Davenport, Police across London to be equipped with Tasers after the Olympics, Evening Standard, 3 July 2012
[14] Crime statistics for England & Wales: violent crime and sexual offences, The Guardian, 7 February 2013; Crime statistics for England & Wales: what's happening to each offence?, The Guardian, 24 April 2013
[15] Haringey MPS, Borough Taser Presentation, March 2013
[16] Justin Davenport, Met faces landmark ruling for 'unlawful' mass roll-out of Tasers in police cars, Evening Standard, 28 January 2013
[17] London Assembly Police and Crime Committee, Governance of Taser and other less-lethal weaponry
[18] Ibid.
[19] ACPO Cabinet, minutes of meetings held on 4 April 2012 and 20 April 2012
[20] Gloucestershire Police Federation calls for Taser training, BBC News, 25 March 2013; Hampshire police commissioner wants Taser guns for all frontline officers, Southern Daily Echo, 25 March 2013
[21] 200 more police officers to get Tasers in Hampshire, Daily Echo, 28 March 2013; Sussex Police to increase Taser-trained officers, BBC News, 26 February 2013
[22] Stuart Robinson, Criminals get a shock as West Yorkshire police use Tasers almost 1,000 times, Yorkshire Evening Post, 22 February 2013
[23] Helen Carter, Campaigners raise concerns over increased police Taser use, The Guardian, 21 October 2012

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