This is a guest post by my colleague John Hagan. Like me, John is a solicitor who specialises in civil actions against the police.
Reflecting on my participation in a debate on the use of police tasers against children on the Jonathan Vernon Smith show (BBC Radio Three Counties, listen here) earlier this week, I am reminded of the famous words of Franklin Roosevelt – is it not the case that so often “the only thing we have to fear, is fear itself”?
Mr Vernon Smith was advocating the increased use of tasers by the police (items which he described as “wonderfully useful tools” but which I might describe as “guns for electrocuting people”) as necessary to stem what he appears to believe is a rising tide of violent crime, lawless behaviour and societal breakdown particularly in urban areas blighted by poverty and people who, in his words, “have not gone to school”. He seemed to me to be painting a picture of inner- city Luton as something akin to the apocalytpic gang land of New York in the movie “Escape from New York”, and seemed to have a particular concern that the current generation of children, particularly teenagers, was more violent and out of control than 20-30 years ago. He spoke of his belief that there were ever more cases of “extreme violence where youngsters are involved.” This is in fact a common human misconception known as “paedophobia”, or fear of children, which can be found throughout the annals of recorded history. Perhaps because we know ourselves to be growing older we become fearful of the young who will supplant us; perhaps because we know nothing fundamentally bad happened to us in the past, but of course we do not know what the future holds, the present naturally seems more dangerous; perhaps because the news media thrives on the “excitement” of bad news rather than the general mundane civilities of life, it is very common for people to think they are living in a ‘worse’ time than their parents or grandparents did. Such sentiments are found being loudly expressed in every human generation.
But that does not mean they are true. The latest UK official crime statistics show, as they have shown in a continuous trend for several years now, that crime generally is falling and that violent crime in particular in at its lowest level since 1981. The April 2014 Crime Survey of England and Wales, prepared by the Office for National Statistics, shows that in 2013 on a proportional level, 2 in every 100 adults were victims of violent crime, compared with 5 in every 100 in 1995. This directly contradicts the basis on which Vernon Smith and others want to roll out ‘armament’ of the police. Violent crime is not rising; they are afraid of phantoms. And such a fear is not, in my opinion, any kind of sound basis for fundamentally changing the nature of policing in this country by replacing an unarmed constabulary with one which is armed with firearms as a matter of course.
I consider this to be the thin end of the wedge of militarisation of the police, leading inexorably towards the American model where every cop has a gun, and the population as a whole has 300 million guns, which is statistically almost one per person. Is that where we want to go ? Escalation – an ‘arms race’ between the cops and the robbers will ensue, and it is simply not necessary. We live in a more peaceful and gentle society than we did 20 years ago. And perhaps, I might have said to Mr Vernon Smith, there are other ways we should deal with the problems of the poverty and lack of education than shooting the children of the poor with taser guns.
Police Taser Abuse
My firm has represented numerous adult individuals who have suffered at the hands of police missuse of tasers. Such situations of “trigger happy” cops, overreacting with use of a taser in situations where it is not justified (such as this case about shooting a man with a taser who has turned his back on them in his own home, or shooting a drunken man in the back, causing him to fall and knock his front teeth out) will increase as deployment of tasers proliferate and police officers carrying such weapons becomes the norm.
So I certainly do not think we should be using tasers on children, save in the most extreme examples involving older teenagers and real threats to life and limb. The fact that the host of a BBC show can quote with apparent approval statistics showing the increased use of tasers against children as young as 11-14 is I think a warning sign that we must guard our civil liberties against this type of ‘mission creep’ lest we suddenly find ourselves living in a world where such firearms proliferate , and rather than a stern word, misbehaving children are regularly dealt with by electrocution.
Indeed, Mr Vernon Smith who repeatedly accused me of “not living in the real world ” and being “irresponsible” and “very disrespectful” to the police, showed that his sympathy appeared to be with the person who pulled the trigger on the taser gun, rather than the person on the receiving end of it, on the basis that, to paraphrase slightly, there’s a lot of paperwork to fill in if you shoot people. Red tape, eh? An interesting perspective with which I can do nothing but disagree in the strongest possible terms.
Mr Vernon Smith put it to me that if the police wanted tasers was that not a reason to give them tasers? Absolutely not. For all the fantastic and often very brave work that police officers do, let us not forget that giving the police unquestioningly what they ask for is living in a police state. Our society preserves its liberty and happiness by checks and balances. If the police ask for something, I think it is ok to say “No”.
And to expect not to get shot down for it.