In 2014, I was invited to visit the Headquarters of TASER International in Scottsdale, Arizona, and offered the opportunity to experience the effects of the electric-shock weapon the TASER. And so it came to pass that on a bright November day, I would find myself standing on a mat, in an empty conference room, waiting to be ‘Tasered’. Despite having volunteered for this experience, I am extremely nervous. I stand tall and wait for the loud ‘pop’ that accompanies the firing of the weapon. The short time it takes for the two metal probes to hit me feels like an eternity and when they do, I involuntarily scream in agony as the electricity passes through me. The sensation is like nothing I have felt before: an agonising pulsing and cramping that seems to take over my body at regular intervals. As well as being a painful experience, it is also a disorientating, unfamiliar, and panic-inducing one. The part of my brain that is able to reflect on the experience is frantically trying to classify it and compare it to something more familiar in order to reassure myself that I am safe—but to no avail. Thankfully, the shock lasts only five seconds. I am lowered to the ground by company officials, shaken but not too badly affected by the experience.
This is the vivid description offered by Dr Abi Dymond, Senior Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Exeter, of her personal experience of being ‘tasered’ – in carefully controlled conditions – as part of the research she undertook for her authoritative study of Police Taser use “Electric-shock weapons, Tasers and policing: Myths and realities” to which I was happy to have been able to contribute.
I would ask you to read Dr Dymond’s description of that nightmarish experience (pain, helplessness, lack of control of your body) and then pause to reflect on what it would be like to be shot by, or even merely threatened, with a taser if you were not an adult, but a pre- teen child? Whilst the effects of the electric- shock which the taser barbs deliver might only last seconds, the mental impact of such an assault on your bodily integrity can last for years, and could do untold damage to the vulnerable and developing mind of a child.
Sadly, we seem to be witnessing an increasing tendency by Police to use these weapons in an ever wider range of scenarios, and upon ever more vulnerable victims.
Police officer Tasers a 10 Year Old Child
I am currently acting on behalf of a 10 year old girl who was tasered at her home in London in January of this year by a Metropolitan Police officer, following an altercation with her mother in which she had picked up a pair of garden shears. There were two Police officers present at this time, and although my client was ‘armed’ with the shears, there was no suggestion that she was actively seeking to attack anyone with them. The Crown Prosecution Service reviewed the evidence, and declined to charge the taser officer (PC Jonathan Broadhead) with any criminal offence, but the Independent Office for Police Conduct (after unsuccessfully appealing the CPS decision) has this month determined that the officer does have a case to answer for gross misconduct in relation to excessive use of force, and the matter will now proceed to a disciplinary hearing.
It is the view of the IOPC decision-maker that PC Broadhead’s use of the taser upon my client was neither justified, necessary nor proportionate to such an extent that it is open for a disciplinary panel to potentially dismiss the officer from the Force.
I will be following the misconduct proceedings – conducted within the internal systems of the Police, rather than the law courts – with interest, but also with a healthy skepticism, born of long experience, as to whether they will deliver justice for my client. My mind is drawn to another case of mine, also involving a young child (12 years old in this case), in which a complaint which was upheld by the IPCC (forerunner of the IOPC) led only to long-drawn out frustration for my client and his family, who did not get the accountability and apology they deserved from the Police until after I had instituted Court proceedings.
Police officer threatens to Taser a 12 year old Cyclist
The case in question involved PC Jonathon Hillier of West Midlands Police, and the incident took place in February 2017.
My 12 year old client, who had been playing with his friend in a local park, was simply riding his bicycle home when he noticed a police car. He did not hear any shouts or calls coming from the police car and was not aware of the officers therein making any signal to him to stop; nor was he aware of any reason why he should stop. He therefore continued to ride his bike until the police car, which contained two officers, was alongside him.
It is my client’s account that one of the officers in the police car, now known to be PC Hillier, was holding what looked to my client like an actual gun; in reality it was a taser, although this was an understandable mistake for a child to make.
My client alleges that PC Hillier then pointed the taser at him, through the open window of the police car, and shouted at him, “Stop you little fucker or I’ll taser you.”
My client immediately slowed down, rode his bike onto the kerb and stopped and got off his bike. My client suffers from Autism Spectrum Disorder and already found interactions with strangers to be difficult; he was shy and retiring by nature, and terrified at what was now unfolding.
My client alleges that PC Hillier marched over, and taking hold of him, shook him hard before throwing him backwards, so that he fell into a nearby garden, banging his back on a low concrete wall which surrounded an area of planting.
My client was now so scared he was struggling to breathe, and his back was hurting. He states that PC Hillier picked him up off the ground and then dropped him to his knees. At this point, my client hit his right elbow and it began to hurt.
PC Hillier then took hold of my client’s arms and manhandled him towards the Police car, pushing him against it.
It transpired that PC Hillier and his colleague had identified – we say wrongly – my client as one of a group of youths on bicycles who had been reported as riding in a dangerous/ anti- social manner. The two officers, realizing that my client was hurt then took him (against his will) to a nearby hospital where they effectively detained him until his mother arrived, and during which time the officers made threats – thankfully unfulfilled – to ‘arrest’ him.
There can be no dispute that my client sustained injury in this incident, as the hospital records and photographs taken shortly afterwards by his parents amply demonstrate that he had cuts and bruises to his lower back, upper chest, arm and right elbow, consistent with the use of force he described Hillier subjecting him to.
In response, PC Hillier sought to explain away my client’s injuries by claiming that he had fallen over (without being touched) as the officer approached him.
He also denied showing his taser gun (although he was certainly armed with one), instead claiming that he ‘merely’ shouted “Stop! Taser Officer!” without producing or pointing the weapon at this terrified child on his bicycle.
A formal complaint to West Midlands Professional Standards Department about this incident immediately followed. In August 2017, the PSD investigation rejected all of the complaints, resulting in the usual outcome of complete exoneration of the officer – despite what was, in my opinion, a weight of evidence to the contrary.
As a result, I wrote to the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC), as it was then (now the IOPC), to appeal the outcome of complaint investigation.
In January 2018, the IPCC upheld my client’s appeal on all points, save for in relation to a referral to the CPS, and recommended that PC Hillier attend a misconduct hearing. There then followed protracted correspondence in relation to the IPCC’s recommendation between the IPCC and the West Midlands PSD for several months.
The outcome of this process, reached in August 2018, was extremely frustrating for my client and his family, and , I might add, for any objective observer concerned with Police transparency and accountability; West Midlands Police ‘called the bluff’ of the IPCC by simply refusing to send PC Hillier before a misconduct panel and proposing the ‘slap on the wrist’ sanction of management action as the only penalty he should face. Regretfully, the IPCC chose not to exercise their power to direct the Police to follow their initial recommendation, and instead now agreed ‘management action’ as the appropriate sanction for Hillier.
I will add here the following additional and highly pertinent information: whilst this process was ongoing, with West Midlands Police opposing a misconduct charge and seeking to shield their officer from any serious sanction or criticism, that self- same officer was undergoing a criminal prosecution, also in connection with an allegation of excessive force, and also involving his taser weapon. Hillier faced criminal proceedings following an incident in February 2018 in which he discharged his weapon at close-range into the face of a man named Scott Cutler, whom Hillier was trying to arrest for a public order offence (which effectively amounted to Cutler’s alleged use of bad language). The taser barbs were left embedded in Cutler’s neck and eyebrow and, the jury before whom Hillier was subsequently tried for ABH (Actual Bodily Harm), heard that after discharging the weapon, Hillier had shouted “Fucking ‘av that” at his victim (who he had been trying to arrest for swearing), and declared “Good” on being told that Cutler had been struck in the head.
Hillier did not deny having aimed his weapon at the other man’s face, but claimed it had been an act of reasonable self- defence from a perceived threat. He was ultimately found not guilty of ABH against Cutler at Birmingham Crown Court in April 2019.
The Quest for Police Accountability
However, I am, at least, pleased to report that my client’s story did not end with the unsatisfactory outcome of mere ‘management action’; for the reins were now in the hands of his parents and myself – rather than West Midlands PSD and their eventual ‘collaborators’ the IPCC. The complaint process over, we now pursued a civil claim which culminated in Court proceedings, recently concluded, in which the Police agreed to pay my client damages in the total sum of £25,000 for this incident, plus legal costs, and to issue a fulsome apology in the following terms-
It is accepted that PC Hillier’s approach to this incident did not reflect the level of decision-making it should have done, and that his performance of his duties fell far short of the standard which is expected.
I am aware that this incident caused you physical as well as psychological injury. I accept that you have suffered a significant negative impact on your lifestyle and schooling over the last 4 years as a consequence of your anxiety reaction to these events.
I also acknowledge that you and your parents felt deeply let down by our complaint investigation process.
West Midlands Police would like to offer you an unreserved apology for all distress and injury which you have suffered, and trust that with this apology and the settlement of your claim, your trust and confidence in West Midlands Police can be restored.
Should it have taken that long – and the use of Court time and resources – for Police accountability to finally materialize in this case? I am sure most will agree with me that the answer to that question should be ‘no’, especially when we are dealing with the use of electric shock guns against children.
The fact that our Police officers seem to be increasingly lackadaisical about the use of such weapons, either out of a reluctance to get their hands dirty, or in order to indulge ‘cops and robbers’ fantasies, should come as a concern to us all.
As Dr Dymond observes in her excellent book, the police in England and Wales are often held up internationally as the “gold standard” when it comes to the traditional model of “policing by consent”, rather than by force, but this heritage of which we should be proud is under threat by the increasing, and ill-regulated roll out of taser guns.
It is in the context of my own experience with the victims of unlawful force by Police officers that I echo Dr Dymond’s call for genuinely robust and truly independent investigations into complaints, and not the kind of lukewarm effort which is what we all too frequently get under the auspices of the IOPC. Likewise I endorse her recommendation for far tighter guidelines to be imposed upon the use of taser weapons. Current College of Policing guidelines allude in airy terms to taser being “one of a number of tactical options available when dealing with an incident with the potential for conflict.”
As Dr Dymond succinctly puts it, this definition “is vague and leaves the door open to excessive, discriminatory and disproportionate policing. Such unclear policies also result in additional pressure for officers, who are faced with making decisions around the use of the weapon with minimal guidance about when such use is, or isn’t appropriate.” She contrasts this with the type of clarity provided in 2008 by the Police Service of Northern Ireland, specifically that – “the use of TASER will be justified where the officer honestly and reasonably believes that it is necessary in order to prevent a risk of death or serious injury.”
Going even further, it is worth considering the guidance issued by the United Nations Committee Against Torture in 2013 which called for a limitation on the use of all ‘electrical discharge weapons’ save for “extreme limited situations where there is a real and immediate threat to life or risk of serious injury, as a substitute for lethal weapons.”
In many cases which I have handled, there is no discernable threat to life or limb whatsoever when Police officers draw their taser guns – whether on children or adults – but only a perceived threat to the officer’s self- importance, or their (often unlawfully) asserted authority. In other cases, some use of force might be justified, but the firing of a taser is grossly disproportionate to the level of threat posed…especially by a 10 year old girl.
If Police chiefs fail to heed the calls of lawyers such as myself and criminologists such as Dr Dymond in this regard, and continue with the softly regulated roll out of taser weapons – and then fail to follow up on that with robust punishments for the abuse of such weapons by ill-disciplined or aggressive officers – then the gold standard of UK Policing will become increasingly tarnished. The more we arm our officers, and the more habitually they use tasers as the ‘go to’ answer to any form of dispute/ resistance, then the more we move, however incrementally, towards an American model of ‘paramilitary’ policing – which is not, in the long run, a healthy state of affairs for either the people on our streets, or those who police them.