In 2020, 41 of England and Wales’ 43 police forces submitted a request to increase the number of Tasers available to their police officers. The total number of Tasers requested was 8,155, at a cost of £6.7 million. Training to use the Tasers was also included at an additional £150,000. This large investment failed to take account of the damage police Taser use has done to many.
On 25 August this year, the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) published a 127-page report on the use of Tasers by police across England and Wales. The findings of the review highlighted the longstanding impunity with which the police operate, and the prejudices at play in who is most often on the weapon’s receiving end.
For the review, the IOPC assessed 101 Taser investigation cases. Its findings revealed that between 2015 and 2020, police were more likely to use Tasers on black people for prolonged periods of time compared to white people, and that police repeatedly used Tasers against people experiencing mental health crises. Data from the Home Office also indicates that the rate of Taser use has increased, with the weapon involved in around 32,000 encounters in 2019/20 – and more than 94,000 since 2015.
The report concludes with several recommendations spanning from guidance and training to scrutiny, monitoring, community engagement initiatives, and independent national research to better understand the use of Tasers on people from ethnic minorities and people with mental health issues. Altogether, the report makes a total of seventeen recommendations – but there are questions to be raised about whether any of them amount to the structural change necessary to solve the real problem.
Earlier this year, Home Secretary Priti Patel told police forces across the country not to hold back on ‘zapping’ ‘the really bad people’. As many of their biggest proponents are keen to point out, Tasers are not guns – but they are still potentially lethal weapons that have been found to be contributing factors in the deaths of over 150 in the US, as of 2017.
In the UK, according to Amnesty International, eighteen people have died after experiencing a Taser discharge. Tasers are rarely the singular contributor to these deaths, but carrying Tasers has itself been found to increase the use of force on the part of police by 48 percent; in 2016, the United Nations committee against torture and other cruel, degrading and inhuman treatment stated that one type of Taser weapon (the TaserX26, which is authorised for use by police officers in the UK) caused extreme pain and could constitute a form of torture. If you’re not a cop, carrying a Taser is punishable by up to ten years in prison.
In 2017, Darren Cumberbatch, aged 32, was Tasered by the police three times during a mental health crisis. He was also punched, beaten with a baton, and sprayed with CS gas. He died nine days later. In 2014, Adrian McDonald, aged 34, died in the back of a police van after a Taser discharge lasting 24 seconds and bites from a police dog. He told officers that he had taken drugs and was struggling to breathe. He then suffered cardiac arrest. A full nine minutes reportedly passed before police called an ambulance. In 2016, former footballer Dalian Atkinson died after he was Tasered multiple times. He was suffering from a weak heart and mental health problems.
These deaths might have been avoided. For the affected families and communities, the fact that Tasers are not as lethal as guns does not make the pain and grief go away. Those families are now calling for increased limits on Tasers, and a ban on their use on those experiencing mental health crises.
The only recommendation in the IOPC’s report that attempts to tackle this particular issue is number seven, which aims to review the ‘guidance on using a Taser on someone displaying signs of acute behavioural disturbance’. ‘Guidance’, ‘scrutiny’, ‘training’, and ‘community oversight’ should all be vital factors, but the reality is that they are too often turned into buzzwords when it comes to policing analysis, lacking the material power to effect transformational change and leaving a violent status-quo intact.
We need real accountability – not empty recommendations that leave those affected by disproportionate Taser use open to the threat of more harm. We also need a system that platforms the families grieving the loss of their loved ones, and puts their demands first. And we should all be calling for an end to the violent culture of policing which criminalises those in need of care, all too often leading to their death at the hands of the state.
Calling for increased limits on the use of Tasers is one step towards a future society in which punitive policing plays no role; one which looks after its citizens by making available safe and secure housing, access to high-quality health care, sufficient food, a fair and equitable economy, a way to express opinions, concerns, and interests, and freedom from psychological and physical harm, both from the state and other individuals. This is a society nurtured in a welfare state. Only then will we be able to talk about ‘health’ and ‘safety’ in ways which are meaningful and lasting.