Is Police Taser Policy Working?

Is police Taser policy working? Solicitor Iain Gould, considers the evidence. By Iain Gould, Solicitor

The relentless rise in the police use of Taser “stun guns” is confirmed by the latest Home Office figures. The statistics show that police in England and Wales drew their Tasers more than 10,300 times last year, an increase of 55% since 2010.

These statistics are, to a large extent, understandable, as more and more front-line officers are equipped with the devices. This trend seems set to continue as, if it were up to the Police Federation, all front-line police officers would have the opportunity to carry Tasers (confirmed in a unanimous vote on 09 February 2015).

It’s easy to see why the police are so keen on them. The Association of Chief Police Officers like that “Taser provides an additional option to resolve situations, including the threat of violence, which can come from any section of the public.” Senior officers tell us that “The Taser is low-level officer protection equipment that is both safer and more appropriate to be used in many circumstances than a baton or firearm.” (Humberside Police Chief Superintendent Steve Graham). And, According to the Association of Chief Police Officers, “The normal reaction to the discharge of a Taser is pain, coupled with loss of some voluntary muscle control… Recovery from these effects of the Taser should be almost instantaneous, once the discharge is complete.”

So, according to the police, it’s all good. Carry on. But really, should we be concerned?

Taser Risks Exposed

Notwithstanding police claims that Tasers are low-level and safe, police policy seems to reflect the reality that the use of Taser is in fact a relatively high level use of force (IPCC review of Taser complaints and incidents 2004-2013) and that arming all officers with Tasers is effecting “compliance by pain” rather than “policing by consent” (Amnesty International press release 24 November 2008).

For this reason, Steve White, Chair of the Police Federation, said that “Any officer authorised to carry Taser must be fully trained to do so and there are strict procedures and safeguards in place to ensure all officers are fully accountable.”

But is this just hollow propaganda? Are officers fully trained? Are procedures followed? Are police officers held to account?

Consider the ongoing case of my client Mr S (name withheld for privacy reasons).

Police Taser a Peacemaker

On 21 June 2013, Mr S went to his son’s ex-girlfriend’s flat to mediate in a disagreement over access to their baby son.

Mr S arrived at the same time as two police officers. His son’s ex-girlfriend’s mother allowed the officers entry but blocked Mr S and then sought to slam the door in his face. Mr S accepts that he held his ground and may have gripped the door frame. At this, one officer pushed Mr S away and said, “go away”.

Mr S accused the officer of assault and asked for his badge number. The officer replied, “I am the police” and shut the door.

Mr S felt that the officer’s conduct was unacceptable and thought about lodging a complaint. He approached the officers’ vehicle to look inside for details of the officer’s identity. He accepts that he may have accidentally caught the wing mirror of the car with his hip but he did not deliberately kick or punch it.

Mr S returned home. A short while later, the same officers arrived.

One of them advised Mr S that he was under arrest for public disorder. Mr S asked what he had done wrong. The policeman sought to handcuff Mr S who accepts that he resisted by stiffening and raising his arms in the air. There was a minor struggle for no more than 10 or 15 seconds.

Suddenly, Mr S heard a pop, which he described as “like a firecracker” going off. He felt intense but short-lived pain. The right side of his body went into an involuntary spasm and convulsion. His body “felt like jelly”. He momentarily lost his balance but was caught by the officers who grabbed Mr S’s arms and handcuffed him to the rear.

Mr S was put in the back of the officers’ patrol car. The handcuffs had been applied extremely tightly and he asked one of the officers if the handcuffs could be loosened. They refused.

The police drove him to the local Police Station where the handcuffs were finally removed.

At this stage, Mr S felt terrible. His chest hurt from where the barbs of the Taser had pierced his skin. The ends of his fingers were still trembling. He felt generally unwell. His wrists were sore and painful.

Despite his own situation, as Mr S is a full-time carer for his mother, he thought only of her wellbeing. His priority was to get out of the police station as quickly as possible.

He spoke to a duty solicitor before his police interview. He was advised that he had been arrested for both a public order offence and resisting arrest.

The police told Mr S’s solicitor that if his client accepted a fixed penalty notice for the public order offence, no further action would be taken in relation to the allegation of resisting arrest. The solicitor said that accepting the notice and payment of the fine would not be an admission of guilt. Conscious of the proposed deal, when interviewed, he deliberately underplayed the officer’s unlawful conduct and excessive use of force.

A short time later, Mr S was brought out of his cell and issued with a fixed penalty notice which he subsequently accepted and paid.

Police Complaint and Claim

Mr S was angry about the incident in which, he felt, the police deliberately injured and humiliated him. He lodged a formal complaint. In response, the police offered to resolve his complaints by local resolution.

Mr S then researched instructing a solicitor to help. As I specialise in civil actions against the police he asked me to handle his complaint and bring a compensation claim for both wrongful arrest and assault.

After a lengthy investigation process involving no less than two appeals to the Independent Police Complaints Commission (“IPCC”), his local police force have finally admitted that the use of Taser and handcuffs was inappropriate.

This only came about after the IPCC’s extremely critical comments of both PC B (the officer who Tasered Mr S) and his police force.

In a review of Mr S’s appeal, the IPCC caseworker said, 

“I would question whether PC B gave enough emphasis to the first element of the National Decision Model, which is to communicate. He does not appear to have made any attempt to communicate with Mr S beyond challenging him about hitting the police car then, when Mr S argued back, telling him he was under arrest. The matter then quickly escalated to the use of force. This is precisely why the National Decision Model places so much emphasis on good communication – in order to diffuse difficult situations, so that they use of force will not become necessary.”

Police officers are entitled to use force to make an arrest provided that it is reasonable and proportionate to the threats presented. But, the caseworker continued, “Mr S was not waving a weapon and he had not assaulted anyone. He was in his own house and not a danger to the public. He had not been violent, or threatened violence, towards the officers”.

In conclusion, the caseworker reported that “the situation should not have been allowed to develop to the point where the use of Taser became necessary. More effort should have been made, in line with the National Decision Model, to engage Mr S in dialogue about why his behaviour was not acceptable” and “in situations where the police are confronted with members of the public who are adamant that they have done no wrong, often the best approach to adopt is one of communication and dialogue. A skilled officer will make every attempt to defuse a potentially volatile situation, rather than, in this case, a quick escalation to the use of force.”

Irrespective of the police officer’s rash behaviour, what was even more concerning was his attitude to the use of Taser and his perception of its seriousness. In his interview, the officer said:

“… It’s worth raising that people’s perceptions of use of Taser is that it’s quite serious and it’s quite high up on the scale of things, and in actuality it isn’t, it’s quite low down, it comes in at the same level as just putting your hands on somebody. (my emphasis in bold)

He went on:

“….If you have to put hands on someone and you’re struggling with them it makes them angry and human nature is makes you angry as well, and Taser just eliminates that completely because there is no reason to get worked up about anything, it’s just an instant thing and straightaway it stops somebody and generally their response is quite positive, I’ve found… the control is immediate, there is no reason for anybody to get injured, and the person will then generally, you know, have a chat with you afterwards and sort of chat to you about the Taser, and you didn’t like that much and you can be friends about it.” (again, my emphasis in bold)

Quite clearly, just putting your hands on somebody is not the same as inserting barbs into their skin and discharging a 50,000 voltage electrical current through their body, causing extreme pain and loss of muscle control. The officer’s apparent naiveté about the physical and mental impact of being Tasered calls into question his training and fitness to carry a weapon.

Inadequate Taser Training

The officer’s comments led to the IPCC caseworker making a somewhat exceptional recommendation under paragraph 28A of Schedule 3 to the Police Reform Act 2002. The IPCC demanded that the police force concerned should review the training provided to officers to ensure that:

  1. The training conforms with national guidance about when, and for what purpose, a warning is given about Taser discharge, and
  2. Sufficient weight is given in training to the potentially harmful physical and psychological effects of discharging a Taser, and the benefits of using communication to defuse a difficult situation.

In addition, the caseworker criticised the police force’s handling of Mr S’s complaint. The caseworker said that, “it should never have been treated as a matter suitable for local resolution given that the complaint, if proven, could amount to gross misconduct. As such, it ought to have been subject to a full investigation from the start, with the IPCC, not the force, being the relevant appeal body. Moreover, the matter should have been referred to the IPCC at the outset in line with the requirement to refer all cases where Taser has been used and a complaint is made”. 

Last Resort

Mr S was traumatised by not only his wrongful arrest but also the excessive and disproportionate use of force against him.  He is currently undergoing counselling and in due course I will present full details of his physical and mental injuries and hopefully negotiate a settlement.

In view of inappropriate Taser use such as this incident, it is right that public concern about the increasingly routine deployment of police Taser should remain high. I accept that there are legitimate reasons for using Taser weapons in policing. Used correctly, it can be a valuable tool in assisting police officers to manage difficult and challenging situations.

But it is essential that officers are taught and understand that the device should be a last resort and not as, in Mr S’s case, a default choice where other tactical options, including communication could be effective. And where police officers fall short, their forces should to act quickly to address officer failures and accept responsibility. Only then will the public have confidence in the police’s policy on the use of Tasers.

Contact me for help with your police Taser assault claim using the online form below or via my firm’s website.

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Author: iaingould

Actions against the police solicitor (lawyer) and blogger.