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Following Dalian Atkinson’s death, let’s question the silent creep of Tasers throughout UK policing

The former Aston Villa footballer has died after being shot with a Taser by police. How did it come to this, and why do we put up with arming our police with such dangerous weapons?

Footballer Dalian Atkinson's death after he was subjected to the use of a Taser by the police is just the latest in a series of incidents which should prompt us all to ask whether we’re happy with the way our police are using Tasers. Although the details of this case are unclear so far, the rise in the use of Tasers by UK police in general needs far greater scrutiny.

Frontline police officers on patrol or responding to emergency calls in the UK are increasingly likely to be armed with Taser weapons. As more police officers have been issued with Tasers the frequency of police Taser use has risen as well. Our police openly admit the increase in TASER use is simply due to more officers being deployed with TASER weapons; they do not argue that TASER use is rising because they are facing more violent incidents and they need to use TASER to respond proportionately.

A police officer doesn’t know what will happen when they pull the trigger on a Taser, it’s hard for them to judge what the impact of their action will be, and if it will be proportionate. People who are Tasered can lose control of their muscles, leaving them unable to break their fall, potentially leading to serious head injuries when they hit the ground. The way the Taser will impact someone who is ill, or on drugs, is also unpredictable.

Taser weapons are clearly dangerous. Just the barbs alone being fired into someone’s body can clearly do serious harm, particularly if they hit the eyes. The manufacturer of UK Police Tasers has even advised that the weapons should not be fired at subject’s chests. I do not have confidence that the police understand the inherent dangers associated with the use of Taser and am not assured that all those carrying the weapons realise a Taser is a weapon that can cause death.

Routinely arming officers with Tasers has resulted in a significant change to the way the UK is policed and it is something that has happened relatively recently. Tasers were first used by the UK police in 2004 and were initially only issued to firearms officers, as a less lethal alternative to a conventional gun.

In 2007, proposals to expand the deployment of Tasers beyond firearms officers were announced and it’s only in recent years that the pace of the roll-out to more officers has increased.

I want every officer armed with a gun to have a Taser too, but I want only those experienced officers who are very well-trained and are best-placed to make difficult judgements to be using Tasers.

The way a country is policed says a lot about its character. In the UK, we have had a largely unarmed police force, policing by consent rather than force, and this is a core part of our national identity; it is part of what makes our country what it is. The roll-out of Taser to more officers has put our tradition of policing at risk.

I fear if we move further down the line towards policing by force then hard-won confidence in policing could be lost and it will become harder, and more expensive, to police the country. I don’t want to see the UK become a less pleasant and less safe place to live, and I fear that’s the direction that increasing Taser use is taking us in. 

Our police should use force proportionately and sparingly, and that's something police chiefs aspire to. I am concerned though that even by carrying a Taser weapon into a situation more frequently the police are increasingly likely to be failing that test of proportion.

I am particularly concerned the dramatic change to the sharp end of British policing, a shift towards policing by force, which has resulted from the Taser roll-out, has taken place without any clear political decision from accountable elected representatives, either by a home secretary or by local Police and Crime Commissioners.

In 2008 the Labour Home Secretary Jacqui Smith announced a plan to arm all frontline police officers with Tasers. Police authorities, chief constables and the public didn’t fully support the plan so it wasn’t implemented and it was apparently dropped. Some Taser weapons were purchased and distributed to forces, but they generally remained in storage. 

What we have seen since 2008 is a slow, insipid, rise in the number of frontline, non-firearms, police officers armed with Taser weapons. Additional Taser deployments have been announced sporadically in a piecemeal manner around the country.

In some areas it has become routine for officers on patrol and responding to calls to be carrying the weapons. As the dramatic change in tone of British policing happened slowly over eight years, I think many people have not really noticed that has been happening.

A national step-change overnight would have grabbed people’s attention and led to public awareness and debate, whereas the slow expansion in police use of Taser managed to evade that.

I would like to see all Police and Crime Commissioners set clear policies on their force’s Taser deployments. I would like to see policies set on the basis of the best available evidence, both from the UK and elsewhere. Inquests should operate genuinely openly and aim to effectively inform the public, and public policy.

Decisions on policies surrounding arming our police with Tasers or other weapons are for all of us, and while we should listen in particular to the views of police officers, it is a question of the kind of society we want to live in.

Richard Taylor has been campaigning against the roll-out of Taser to non-firearms officers since 2008. He tweets @RTaylorUK. Visit his website for more information.

Photo: Getty
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I’m in the kitchen with my children, finally learning how to sharpen a knife

For some reason, they have often given me sharp things as presents.

The children have been with me quite a bit lately: they are all going to be, by the time you read this, on their travels, and the Hovel is a useful staging-post for the start of their journeys. Staying here means an extra hour in bed when you have to take a coach from Victoria, or a plane from Stansted or, worse, Luton.

Their company never fails to delight, which is not how I imagined things would turn out. I was a surly clock-watcher at my own parents’ home, counting the days until I could cast off the oppressive yoke of having my meals cooked for me and my laundry done. That was how it was back then. Nowadays, parents try to close the gap between themselves and their children or, even if they don’t try, the gap seems to be closing anyway.

I suppose not being in situ for ten years, on the ground doing the daily heavy lifting, helps. I am not the monstrous, Freudian oppressor-figure: I am the messy layabout with a certain weird kind of authority but not one who assumes the moral high ground. But here they are, or were, and as they get older they get increasingly interesting, more pleasing to be with. And the interesting thing is that they now have skills that I can learn. The traffic of instruction is not one-way.

My daughter worked, for a while, in the kitchen of a restaurant in Berlin. She already knew how to cook, and how to get along with people, but there she also learned how to sharpen knives. I thought I could, but I can’t, not at all.

When you see a father – invariably a father – zinging a honing steel along the blade of a knife prior to carving the Sunday roast, he is not doing anything useful apart from establishing a sense of theatre, which is of debatable utility anyway. He might think he’s a cross between Zorro and Anthony Bourdain, the rather cool New York chef – there’s always a certain flourish in the wrist action – but the trained chef will raise an eyebrow.

For some reason my children have often given me sharp things as presents. For my first Christmas in the Hovel they gave me a Swiss Army Knife, which I still use, especially the corkscrew; one birthday they gave me a pizza-cutter in the shape of the original Starship Enterprise – which I still use. And last birthday, the boys clubbed together to get me a proper kitchen knife.

I had hitherto resisted the notion of getting one, despite the fact that I like cooking and also know how important a good knife is. Here is Bourdain himself, writing in his Les Halles Cookbook (the only one I ever use these days): “Your knife, more than any other piece of equipment in the kitchen, is an extension of the self, an expression of your skills, ability, experience, dreams and desires.”

I suppose this was why I put up with rubbish knives for so long: my dreams and desires were second-rate. I was cooking on an electric hob, mostly for myself; besides, I wasn’t going to be here forever. What the hell was I going to do with a decent knife? Also, I have a healthy respect for sharpness, and whenever I cut meat up with a good blade, I imagine that blade cutting into my own weak flesh, and see vividly, the wound it makes.

But a good knife needs to be looked after, and my daughter, who was given a Japanese chef’s knife as a parting gift from her fellow kitchen workers, learned how to use a water stone, and last weekend taught me.

It is fascinating, and soothing, sharpening a knife. You have to gauge the correct angle at which to place the blade against the stone. You have to feel, with the pads of your fingers, the sharpness of the knife itself, and the burr that results on one side of it after a few dozen passes over the stone. One is aware that sharpening is about shaving steel, almost by molecules at a time, a process that has no theoretical end, except when, one day, the knife itself is sharpened to invisibility.

I am reminded of the fabled measure of eternity: the bird who sharpens his beak against the rock of a mile-high mountain once every hundred years. When the mountain is worn down, a mere day of eternity will have passed.

Meanwhile, the daughter passes the knife across the stone, dips her fingers in a bowl of water, sprinkles it over the stone, and repeats the passing. The father sits there, absorbed in her skill, wondering at this inversion of the traditional learning process. “Here,” she says, handing over knife and stone. “You have a go.” 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder