What Everybody Ought to Know About Arming the Police

iain-gould-at-bbc

By Iain Gould, solicitor

I was pleased to have the opportunity to discuss on BBC Television last week an issue which I think we should all be paying ever greater attention to, namely the increasing ‘armament’ of our Police Force.  My colleague John Hagan also had an opportunity to debate this issue with BBC 3 County’s morning talk show host Jonathan Vernon Smith last month, and I have attached an audio file of John’s interview on the JVS show below:

What I believe I am seeing is an agenda by Police Forces which, if they have their way, will likely result in the full armament of our Nation’s Police Officers not only with taser guns, but perhaps even more deadly firearms raising the spectre that Police Forces in England & Wales could soon resemble the US Police in the routine usage of deadly firearms.

I have long warned about the dangers of creeping ‘militarisation’ of the Police as by steady increments we move from a Police Force which 20 years ago was virtually gun free to one in which potentially every Bobby on the Beat might be packing ‘heat’ (as they say…).  This began with the introduction of taser guns back in 2003 and then the steady ‘roll out’ of tasers to more and more Officers, until we stand on the verge of entire Police Forces looking to equip their Constables with tasers as a matter of standard kit.  Once we have Police Forces where all of the Officers are carrying taser guns, it will no longer seem such a dramatic step to move towards increased, and then eventually perhaps universal armament of Officers with bullet firing guns capable of delivering the kind of deadly force which, in the US in 2015 saw 1146 people killed by Police Officers (figures from The Guardian).

This was exactly the issue which I was called onto BBC Humberside to discuss – because Humberside Police Federation is even as I write this pushing to arm all of its Officers with taser guns.  Likewise there is currently a survey being conducted by The Metropolitan Police Federation, which is asking all of its members if they wish to carry tasers and/or bullet firing guns.   Although the Met Police Fed has tried to present its survey as a ‘neutral’ fact finding enquiry, I fully believe that the Federation’s agenda is to get a strong ‘yes’ vote from its members in order to assist its efforts in lobbying the Home Office to arm the Metropolitan Police.  An Ipsos Mori poll in December, suggesting that 71% of the public back more police getting taser guns, was seized upon by Steve White, Chairman of the Police Federation who said “We know Officers support the use of taser … and now we have the evidence that shows the public do as well”.

The Police Federation has already written to all Chief Constables and Police Commissioners across England and Wales urging them to support the wider roll out of tasers.

Whilst I do not object to Police carrying taser guns in principle, as I fully accept that there are situations where taser use is appropriate and can significantly reduce the risk of harm to both Police Officers and civilians caught in a violent situation – the fact is that increased taser ‘roll out’ must go hand in hand with a careful training program and a recognition that not every Officer may be temperamentally suited to carry this weapon.  A fast ‘blanket’ roll out of taser guns that does not go hand in hand with proper training and screening of the Officers that are going to carry these weapons runs a significant risk, in my opinion, of creating a situation of more harm than good, given the potential for these weapons to be misused.

A second significant issue for me, as I have expressed above, is that if we do move to a situation where whole Police Forces are carrying tasers, then we have not created so much a ‘back door’ as a wide open front door for the next ‘logical’ policy step being full armament with bullet firing guns.

One thing that concerns me about the results of the survey carried out in December 2016, indicating 71% support amongst the public for more taser wielding Police Officers is that the public does not necessarily have the full information to properly judge the risk of this weapon.  We must not romanticise, or even fetishize  the taser as if it were some kind of 100% reliable, 100% safe science fiction ‘stun gun’.  It is a weapon which delivers a massive surge of electrical volts to a person’s body, running in every case a risk of fatality, and causing at the very least a temporary paralysis and burst of extreme pain to the person subjected to it.

Whilst the public is aware of the – fortunately small number – of fatalities which have occurred when taser guns have been deployed on people, one of the most notable recent occasions being the death of former Aston Villa footballer Dalian Atkinson in August last year, what the public is not generally aware of, but I am as a Solicitor who handles Police Misconduct claims, are the lower level – but much more frequent – incidences of taser misuse, which whilst not resulting in fatalities, can nevertheless cause significant long-term hurt to the people involved.

I have blogged before on some of the numerous cases in which I have been involved concerning taser misuse including a black man shot in the back with a taser gun in the hallway of his own house and another man, who also in the hallway of his own home,  had a Police Officer turn a taser gun upon him during a minor dispute as to whether or not he had knocked the wing mirror of a Police car.

What was deeply concerning to me were the comments of the Police Officer in that last case who said as follows in regards to shooting someone with a taser gun:-

…it’s worth raising that people’s perceptions of use of taser is that it is quite serious and it’s quite high up on the scale of things, and in actuality it isn’t, it is quite low down, it comes in at the same level as just putting your hands on somebody…” 

These comments were made by the Officer in response to the internal disciplinary investigation launched after this incident.  They are clear evidence that some Police Officers at least are not being properly trained to use the weapon appropriately and are not fully aware of its potential lethality.  Clearly, unless you are some kind of mutant super hero (or villain), placing your hands on somebody is in no way the same as shooting them with a weapon powered by 50,000 volts of electricity.

I was also concerned that these incidents show how easy it is for some Police Officers to use a taser gun not as a weapon of last resort but as a ‘short cut’ to resolve a dispute – even a non violent dispute – in the Police Officer’s favour before other less violent methods of conflict resolution – for example talking and reasoning  – have properly been exhausted, either because the Officer has lost his temper, or even, frankly, because he is being lazy.

These incidents, because they do not result in fatalities, are little reported by the media and hence most people are simply not aware of them.

Indeed, it is not only Lawyers such as I who handle Police Misconduct claims who are trying to sound a note of caution against the increased deployment of tasers.  Some Police Officers themselves are.  The following comes from an article written for the Guardian on 16/8/16 by Janet Hills, President of the National Black Police Association, in the aftermath of the death of Dalian Atkinson –

As a serving Officer I know what it is like to face a man armed with a knife.  I have seen the dreadful consequences of knife crime in our communities.  What I want is for the taser to be used to reduce the number of tragic incidents, not increase them.  Officers are trained to consider the most appropriate option in the circumstances but ultimately it remains the responsibility of Officers and those who employ them to justify their use of force.  These decisions are underpinned by legislation but the law can only ever be a starting point.  We must train Officers to understand behaviour, to consider all the options, and in critical situations, to be able to give the vital aftercare that is needed. 

As President of the National Black Police Association, I am clearly concerned about the disproportionate use and the impact that taser use has on our communities.  Increasing their use may seem an easy option, but we must always be aware of the concern tasers are causing in communities already filled with mistrust and fear towards the Police. 

Statistics bear out this sense of concern which non- white members of the public may well have regarding an increasingly heavily armed Police Force.  Home Office data covering the period 2010 – 15 shows use of tasers against non- white people is disproportionately heavy – a taser is 3 times more likely to be used against a black person than a white person.

That statistic alone, as Janet Hills points out, calls into question the effectiveness of the current training and screening program which Forces have in place when arming their Officers with tasers.  Surely incidents of inappropriate taser use are going to rise as the number of taser guns on our streets increases?  There are real risks of ‘trigger happy’ officers unable to psychologically handle the responsibility of carrying a gun being unleashed upon the public, especially in a time when Government policy dictates massive reductions in police budgets across the country  – Officer numbers are down a staggering 20,000 since 2010 in this ‘age of austerity’. Where on earth would the financial resources for properly training and regulating entire Forces armed with (at least) taser guns come from ?

You may also remember the shocking footage which was revealed last year showing a black motorist having the windscreen of his car smashed to smithereens by a Metropolitan Police Officer who had clearly lost control of his temper and had turned his baton upon the man’s car in a futile outpouring of rage.  I do not think it is going too far to say that situations like that in the US, where of course all Police Officers routinely carry firearms, often result in the fatal shooting of the black ‘suspect’.  If the Metropolitan Police Federation has what I suspect is its wish, and pushes for not only taser guns but actual bullet firing guns in increasing numbers into the hands of its Officers I fear we could see a similar pattern of fatal Police shootings as occurs in the US.

What I would ask everyone to do is to stop and think about whether they really wish to see what would be a fundamental change in the way our society polices itself,  moving from a non- firearm carrying Police Force to one in which all Officers routinely have at least a taser gun on their person.  As the old saying goes, if the system is not broken, why try and fix it – or certainly why make dramatic changes involving placing a significant increased amount of potentially lethal fire power on our street, albeit, in the hands of Police Officers?

The fact is that we live in a more peaceful society than we did 20 years ago.  The statistics which prove this are indisputable.  Our streets are safer than they were two decades ago. In the 12 months to March 2016, Officers had to discharge firearms on only 7 occasions, and this in a UK population of over 60 Million people. There is less violence in society and the number of incidents involving serious injury, or even death to Police Officers is thankfully minimal. The Police Roll of Honour Trust records in the 3 years 2013- 15 only two officers in the whole of the UK dying as a result of aggressive action by criminal suspects (and in both of those tragic cases, the police officer was run down by a car). Police officers are already, as a matter of routine, equipped with stab vests, truncheons and incapacitant sprays. A significant number of them already have tasers, and there are of course armed response units available to every Force. Why do we need to ramp up the militarisation of our Police any more ?

Once again, it is not only lawyers such as myself sounding this warning, but also serving or former Police Officers. Interviewed by the Daily Mirror on 10/1/17, former Metropolitan Police Chief Superintendent said this

I feel uneasy seeing armed officers where they are not needed. We have officers trained in firearms who are used when and where intelligence says they are required. I’m all for reinforcing those numbers if statistics and safety say you should. But no one has shown me that statistically they are currently not able to cope.

One thing which my colleagues and I have noticed as a disturbing and repeated theme in this ongoing debate about arming the Police over the last year and more is how those who wish to see the Police carrying more guns will invariably invoke the bloodstained spectre of Terrorism. For example, the current Met Police Federation survey refers to this as a factor.

This is notwithstanding the fact that since 2006 there has been only one terrorism related killing in the UK (that of the highly publicised case of Lee Rigby). Whilst of course, the July 2005 attacks in London tragically killed 52 people, none of those bombings could have been prevented by taser or firearm carrying officers, and, indeed, the only involvement of firearms officers in the aftermath of those attacks, resulted in the shooting dead of an innocent man, Jean Charles de Menezes.

It is true that there have in the last 2 years been multiple terrorist attacks in France, and another recently in Germany, but those countries already have a routinely armed police force, and clearly that failed to stop any of those attacks from being carried out. The fact of the matter is that the way to stop terrorist attacks is to fund our Intelligence Services, who can discover and prevent the plots before they are implemented; that is where our anti- terrorism resources should be going, not into arming the police.

People are scared, however, almost certainly out of proportion to the real risk of them being caught up in a terrorist attack, by the deeply upsetting nature of these events. However, good policy must surely be dictated by a dispassionate analysis of the actual facts and statistics, not an emotional ‘gut’ response to tragedy.

Terrorists want us to be frightened.  They want us to fundamentally change the character of our society.  Terrorists would no doubt be pleased to see the UK change itself from a society with an essentially unarmed Police Force to one where all the Police carry guns thereby increasing the levels of violence in society both as a result of accidental, angry or otherwise inappropriate or disproportionate use of firearms by Police Officers on members of the public, and the risk that criminal elements in society and/or those communities which feel more excluded from mainstream society or victimised and targeted by the Police are then likely to respond by arming themselves with increasing number of firearms escalating us towards a US style firearms society.

Paranoia and fear about terrorists potentially lurking on every street corner is not a sound basis for the formation of policy or fundamental changes to the character and nature of our Police Force.

Guns in America are responsible for approximately 30,000 deaths a year.  No terrorist campaign has come remotely close to causing that amount of harm to our society over many decades (and let us not forget that this is not the first terrorist campaign that we have faced as a Nation).

Let us not do it to ourselves.  The only way the terrorists will win, is if we allow ourselves to be terrified.  They want us to change.  Do not give in to them.

 

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About iaingould

Actions against the police solicitor (lawyer) and blogger.
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