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?

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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.