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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.

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What has happened to the Liberal Democrats?

As Brexit nears, Vince Cable is struggling – but his is a poisoned inheritance.

During the coalition years, Iain Duncan Smith came up with a plan: if unemployed people went on a demonstration, and the police stopped them for any reason, the officer should pass their names on to the Department for Work and Pensions, which could then freeze their benefits. After all, the minister’s reasoning went, if you had time to protest, you weren’t actively seeking work.

This was just one of the many David Cameron-era Tory proposals that the Liberal Democrats quashed before it ever saw the light of day. Every Lib Dem who worked in the coalition, whether as a minister or a special adviser, has a horror story about a policy they stopped or watered down – and usually the papers to prove it, too.

And so from time to time, Vince Cable’s team needs to respond to a news story by plundering their archives for anti-Tory material. A month or so ago, a former Lib Dem staffer got a phone call from the party’s press operation: could someone answer some questions about their time in government? To which the ex-staffer said: OK, but since you’re calling on a withheld number, you’ll need to get someone to vouch for you.

Perhaps, the former staffer suggested, Phil Reilly, the Lib Dems’ communications chief and a veteran of the party machine, was around? No, came the answer, he has moved on. What about Sam Barratt? Out at a meeting. Was Paul Haydon there? No. Haydon – who worked for the party’s last member of the European parliament, Catherine Bearder, before joining the press office – had moved on, too. After a while, this ex-staffer gave up and put the phone down.

The really troubling thing about this story is that I have heard it three times from three former Liberal Democrat aides. The names change, of course, but the point of the story – that the party machine has been stripped of much of its institutional memory – stays the same. The culprit, according to the staffers who have spoken to me, is Vince Cable. And the exodus is not just from the press office: the party’s chief executive, Tim Gordon, is among the heavyweights to have departed since the 2017 election.

Is this fair? Tim Farron, Cable’s predecessor as party leader, did not share Nick Clegg’s politics, but he recognised that he was inheriting a high-quality backroom team and strove to keep the main players in place. Reilly, who is now at the National Film and Television School, wrote not only Clegg’s concession speech at the general election in 2015, but Farron’s acceptance speech as leader a few months later.

The Liberal Democrats’ curse is that they have to fight for every minute of press and television coverage, so the depletion of their experienced media team is particularly challenging. But their problems go beyond the question of who works at the George Street headquarters in London. As party veterans note, Cable leads a parliamentary group whose continued existence is as uncertain as it was when Paddy Ashdown first became its leader in 1988. The difference is that Ashdown had a gift for identifying issues that the main political parties had neglected. That gave him a greater media profile than his party’s standing warranted.

There is no shortage of liberal and green issues on which Cable could be more vocal: the right to die, for instance, or the legalisation of cannabis. He could even take a leaf from Ashdown’s playbook and set out a bolder approach on income tax than either Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn. While none of these issues command anything resembling majority support, they are distinctly more popular than the Liberal Democrats. They would also get the party talked about more often. At present, it is being ignored.

These complaints will receive a greater airing if the Lib Dems have a disappointing night at the local elections on 3 May. The party hopes to gain ground in Manchester and retain the Watford mayoralty, but fears it will lose control of the council in Sutton, south-west London. It expects to make little headway overall.

So what else could be done? If you gather three Liberal Democrats in a room, you will hear at least five opinions about what Cable is getting wrong. But the party’s problems neither start nor end with its leader. Cable inherits two difficult legacies: first, thanks to Farron, his party is committed to an all-out war against Brexit. In 2016, that policy successfully gave a shattered party a reason to exist, and some hoped that the Lib Dems could recover ground by wooing disgruntled Remainers. Last year’s general election changed the game, however. The two big parties took their highest share of the vote since 1970, squeezing the Lib Dems to a dozen MPs. That simply doesn’t give the party the numbers to “stop Brexit” – therefore, they feel to many like a wasted vote.

Why not drop the commitment to a second in/out EU referendum? Because one of Farron’s successes was attracting pro-European new members – and thanks to the party’s ultra-democratic constitution, these hardcore Remainers can keep that commitment in place for as long as they wish.

The legacy of coalition is even more difficult to address. In policy terms, the Lib Dems can point to great achievements in government: across every department, there are examples of Duncan Smith-style cruelties that the party prevented.

Yet there is no electoral coalition to be won from voters who are pleased and grateful that hypothetical horrors didn’t come to pass. More than half of voters still regard the Lib Dems’ participation in coalition as a reason not to back the party. That might change as the memories fade, but for now the party’s last spell in government is a significant barrier to gaining the chance to have another one. Even a fresh, young and charismatic leader – with a superb, experienced team – would struggle with such a poisoned inheritance. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Corbyn ultimatum