Case for reform in use of tasers
Tuesday, September 28, 2021
Changes to police training and recruitment needed after rise in taser use against children, say campaigners.
Home Secretary Priti Patel’s call this summer for police officers to “zap the bad people” with tasers has raised alarm bells among children’s rights groups and racial justice campaigners. Recently published official figures reveal a near tripling of cases involving the use of tasers on under-18s in two years. Research in London found three quarters of taser incidents involve children of black, Asian and minority ethnic heritage (BAME).
As charities continue to campaign for taser use on children to be more tightly regulated, they are concerned that an expansion in the number of frontline officers issued with the weapons increases the chances of them being used inappropriately and children suffering harm.
In September 2019, Patel announced £10m for equipping more frontline police officers with tasers – at that time, around a quarter of all officers (30,500) were “taser-trained”.
2,795 uses of tasers on 11- to 17-years-olds in 2019/20
138 discharge incidents involving children in 2019/20
6 referred for independent investigation 2015-20
The Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) published a report in August highlighting Home Office data on taser incidents (see box) alongside a review of all of the 101 cases referred for independent investigation. This included an in-depth look at the six child-related cases dealt with in five years to 31 March 2020.
The statistics make an important distinction between “use”, which means that the device was drawn or aimed at the suspect, and “discharge” – which occurred in 138 child-related cases.
The IOPC has recommended prosecutions in relation to two of the cases.
The first involved a 14-year-old boy with a learning disability.
While the IOPC found there was no case to answer for the officer who discharged his taser, two were referred over their “use of force, failures to respect the individual’s rights and to act with fairness and impartiality”.
In the second, a 17-year-old black girl with mental illness was dosed with incapacitant spray, struck multiple times with a baton and tasered, leading to an IOPC recommendation for “practice requiring improvement for the officer who discharged his taser for his lack of self-control, respect and courtesy”.
An ongoing IOPC investigation features a black 14-year-old, who suffered a serious head injury after being tasered while he was running away from police and falling to the floor.
He was kept in handcuffs after being searched and no knife was found, states the report, which adds: “The officer said that the area was known for gang violence and that children were often involved.”
The very low number of case referrals compared with the number of incidents is of concern, the report states. “This raises questions about whether forces are considering appropriately the requirement to voluntarily refer incidents of taser use against children to the IOPC.”
It adds there is increasing concern about “the limited research around both the physical and psychological risks of taser use on children”.
Case for action
Louise King, director of the Children’s Rights Alliance for England, which was among the stakeholders consulted for the report – which led to 17 recommendations relating to training, data/monitoring and community inclusion – believes that referrals should be “mandatory” in cases involving children.
“It would ensure effective accountability of the use on children and send out a message that it shouldn’t be an everyday thing to use tasers,” says King.
King is concerned children’s rights do not feature highly enough in taser training, despite the National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC) adopting the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
“The training is key to making it really clear that you need to be thinking differently when you’re interacting with a child rather than an adult,” King explains.
The organisation has made Freedom of Information Act requests of police forces to try to get more details on the age and race of taser incidents involving children.
The Home Office figures show that in the first 10 months of 2019, 74 per cent of children who had a taser used on them in London, were from a BAME background.
Research indicates that “black people are often subjected to stereotypical assumptions and can be perceived to be more threatening”, says the IOPC.
This is a major factor behind disproportionate representation of young black men in the figures, believes Habib Kadiri, research and policy manager at campaign group StopWatch, which also fed into the IOPC report.
Kadiri adds: “People suffering mental illness, young black men, and people in poorer parts of cities, are going to bear the brunt of proliferating taser use.”
The IOPC Youth Panel has suggested testing for racial bias and refusal of entry to biased officers as part of the police recruitment process.
The College of Policing has said it will consider the IOPC recommendations, but the NPCC was critical of the report, describing the cases as unrepresentative and resulting in “out-of-date” recommendations.
The NPCC acknowledges that young black men are eight times more likely to have a taser used on them and highlights its ongoing independent review into disproportionality and taser use in partnership with the college, chaired by black youth advocate Junior Smart, as evidence it is serious about tackling the issue.
Review of IOPC cases involving the use of Taser 2015-2020, IOPC, August 2021