Concerns over the legitimacy and safe use of Tasers by the police is gathering pace as lawyers, politicians and academics begin to pool their knowledge over a lack of research into its effects on public health and ambiguous guidance on its use.
Tasers were first trialled in the UK with firearms officers in 2003 before being rolled out across the country to public order teams in 2008.
In April 2012 the Metropolitan Police began rolling them out to non-specialist officers – a month before the first credible report into the effects of Tasers was published.
The latest roll-out has been followed by a dramatic rise in their use amid reports of misuse and negative effects on people’s health – including loss of life.
Alistair Logan, a member of the Law Society’s Human Rights Committee, said Tasers were introduced without any form of medical assessment.
At a recent meeting on Tasers and their compatibility with human rights, he said: “You should not be introducing and using weapons in a public situation unless you have fully tested them at the outset. We didn’t do that and we’re now playing catch-up. The American heart association published the first peer-reviewed report on Tasers and concluded that they were capable of killing. That was done in May 2012.”
Logan said small people, people with mental disorders, on drugs, alcohol or near flammable liquids were all at greater risk of harm from Taser. He also said there was a risk of injury from secondary causes, such as the sharp barbs hitting people in the eye or victims falling and hitting their head on the ground.
He said: “I would say we are deciding how much torture is okay. The Human Rights Society believes that the use of Taser is contrary to the human rights convention.”
Simon Chesterman, ACPO’s lead on Tasers, said there had been some UK evaluation into the health effects of Tasers using international research, however, the quality of research has been brought into question.
Anna Diamond, who has been assessing the quality of research into Taser safety at the University of Exeter, said: “Studies that were funded by Taser or were Taser affiliated were much more likely to conclude that Taser posed no danger to the heart. Studies without any Taser affiliation were much more likely to conclude that Tasers were of concern.”
Amnesty International says that at least 500 people have died in the US after being Tasered, where their use is widespread, and at least 60 deaths have been directly linked to the effects of Taser by a coroner or medical examiner.
In the UK police say there have been four deaths linked to Taser use, but said a secondary cause such as a weak heart or drugs was responsible in each case.
There has also been concern over the decision to remove the specific justification of when Tasers can be used – where there is serious or a threat of serious violence – from the Home Office and ACPO guidance.
Officers now rely on standard use-of-force legislation (S117 of PACE and S3 of the Criminal Law Act) that do not require violence or the threat of violence, only that officers consider the use-of-force to be ‘reasonable’ in preventing a crime or making an arrest.
This means Tasers can now be used as a compliance tool without contravening the guidance, for example, if a member of the public doesn’t follow an order.
Simon Chesterman, who is also Deputy Chief Constable for West Mercia Police, said it was removed “because it was just a confusing sentence” and that “the guidance is a lot stronger on that now”.
However, Sophie Khan, a solicitor who specialises in Taser cases, disagreed saying removing the sentence weakened the justification. “You’ve made it easier for officers to use the Taser.”
Richard Edwards, associate head of law at the University of the West of England, said the ACPO guidelines were “very general” and that he was “not sure they’re good enough.”
Chesterman admitted the guidance was “fairly generic”, but that it specified proportionality, necessity and that any use must be within the law. “Officers are accountable”, he said.
Tasers have been used on people sat in their car, in their home, walking down the road or handcuffed and in custody. In each case victims have claimed they were not threatening any violence.
In March senior officers told the Greater London Assembly they were not aware of an officer misusing Taser.
The GLA has called on the Metropolitan Police to start publishing its use of Taser as it does stop-and-search.