Within a couple of months every borough in London will have four police patrols armed with Tasers roaming the streets 24 hours-a-day. The majority already have and subsequently they’ll never be more than a few minutes away.
While most people accept their intended use on people threatening or engaging in serious violence, there are justified concerns over their ubiquity leading to increased, inappropriate and disproportionate use that could have damaging consequences on individuals and communities.
The catalog of reports detailing inappropriate use is already growing with the IPCC currently investigating, amongst others, a blind man who was tasered in the back after police mistook his white stick for a sword, a 17-year-old who was mistakenly tasered as police responded to a burglary and a 58-year-old man suffering from Alzheimers who was tasered while being sectioned.
Meanwhile statistics already show the disproportionate use of Tasers after a series of FOI requests by the Guardian revealed that over recent years 60 per cent of taser victims were under thirty, 50 per cent were black and 30 per cent had mental ill health or emotional problems.
And there use is increasing at every level. Between 2008 and 2011 there was a 66 per cent increase in use across the country, between 2011 and 2012 there was a 100 per cent increase in their deployment by the Met with a 300 per cent increase in Hackney. Stuart Chesterman, ACPO’s lead on Tasers, has been clear that more Tasers means more use.
Any further increase can only exasperate the problems outlined above, but it is not just the actual tasering of innocent people that is of concern. It is also their use as a compliance tool.
Police statistics show the vast majority of Tasers deployed are not actually fired. Senior officers proudly state their mere presence is enough to make a ‘suspect’ submit.
This gives police a powerful tool to control members of the public thinking twice about following orders. It’s not hard to imagine an officer being tempted to abuse that power to facilitate a search or to let a cocky youth know who’s boss.
If the misuse of stop-and-search contributed to the riots in 2011, what effects could the misuse of Tasers have?
Picture this. Police stop-and-search a group of youths. Youths become angry over being stop-and-searched, again, for no good reason. Police interpret potential violence and call for Taser back-up. Back-up arrives under the belief ‘serious violence’ has been threatened. What happens next? Youths either completely submit or risk being Tasered. There’s no room for back-chat or animated expression, but one can’t help himself and is soon writhing on the floor as his friends watch on in horror. Their shock is compounded when they realise he has to be taken to hospital to have the barbs that have penetrated his skin removed. The frustration, humiliation and sense of powerlessness can only lead to further anger and resentment among those who feel they are already victimised by the police. At some point it will need an outlet.
And these real concerns are before the health effects have even been considered. Senior officers admit there is a greater risk to people of small stature and those with heart conditions, but have not refined their operational procedures to accommodate those risks.
In the US more than 500 people have died after being tasered. A 27-year-old high on drugs recently died in Cumbria after he was tasered four times in a minute. Officers say such deaths are are down to secondary causes and not the Taser blaming it on the drugs instead. The same has happened where victims have had existing heart problems and awkward falls.
The decision to roll-out Tasers across London was unilaterally taken by the Mayor and Police Commissioner with no independent consultation from health or legal professionals. A judicial review has since been launched.
And there is no obligation on local forces to publish Taser use making it difficult to monitor its use and any subsequent injuries.
Until then youth advocacy group Stop Criminalising Hackney Youth and legal action group Police Action Centre are organising to raise awareness and push for greater accountability with a first public meeting due later this month.
Sadie King, of SCHY, said: “We are concerned that some of the most vulnerable young people who are being pushed into extreme levels of poverty by the welfare reforms will become the victims of police tasers. As a social housing resident I have seen firsthand the punitive and even sadistic police behaviour towards young people. I am not alone in the fear that tasers will be used as instruments of torture. Tasers wont reduce gun and knife crime, they will just put us on the path towards increased violence on the streets.”
* The meeting will be held at 7pm on Monday, April 22, at Chats Palace, 42-44 Brooksby Walk, Hackney.
Speakers include: Sophie Khan, solicitor and director of Police Action Centre, Juney Muhammad, mental health professional, Cllr Angus Mulready-Jones (Lab: Dalston), Dean Ryan, Hackney trade unionist and youth advocate, and Gary McFarlane, Tottenham Defence Campaign.