1 Dec 2011

Taser firings: the inside story

Last year, two-thirds of the country’s police forces fired Tasers significantly more – some by up to 800 per cent – than in the preceding year, a Channel 4 News investigation can disclose.

At least 30 of the country’s 43 forces discharged the controversial firearm – which sends out a 50,000 volt shock either by emitting two darts or placing the stun gun directly onto the body – more times than last year.

Forces collectively fired Tasers more than 1,500 times in the year ending March 2011, 70 per cent more than the previous year, with the average force increase 130 per cent.

The findings, accessed through Freedom of Information, throw into doubt comments last week by the new Metropolitan Police commissioner, Bernard Hogan-Howe, who said fewer people are being tasered by officers.

Mr Hogan-Howe was arguing that every Met police car should have a Taser in it following an incident in which four police officers were stabbed in a butcher’s shop in north west London. At present, only trained firearms officers are equipped with Taser guns.

“We have seen this in other forces around the country. It has not led to more people being tasered, but it does lead to officers and the public being kept safer.”

Amnesty International described the new set of figures as “alarming” and queried Mr Hogan-Howe’s comments.

The organisation urged the Home Office to investigate the reason for the massive increase and called for sweeping changes to the current guidelines, which are issued by the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo).

Spokeswoman Eulette Ewart said: “Amnesty International considers these findings to be particularly alarming, given the level of increase in such a short period of time.

“These findings indicate that there is a clear disparity between the number of firings that occur in some forces compared to others. That indicates that there’s a lack of clarity to the guidelines: to when the Taser should be fired and when it shouldn’t.

“We are calling for the Home Office to thoroughly review Acpo guidelines in terms of how these Tasers are used, so we would question the comments made by Mr Hogan-Howe.”

She added: “However, given that we have no understanding of the circumstances of when the Taser was fired, it’s difficult for us to determine whether the Taser was used appropriately or not.”

Officers in the country’s second largest force, Greater Manchester Police, which has more than 8,000 officers, fired Tasers almost three times more (152) in 2010/11 than in 2009/10.

Smaller forces, too, recorded huge increases in firings, including Suffolk Constabulary (about 1,200 officers), whose 18 firings in the last year represent a ninefold jump in use – more than its officers have fired in the previous six years combined.

Amnesty said that in the US there have been more than 300 deaths following stun gun use, and in Britain the deaths of two people after being shocked with Tasers are being examined by the police watchdog, the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC).

Bodybuilder Dale Burns, 27, was tasered in Cumbria and Philip Hulmes, 53, from Bolton, both died this summer when police discharged Tasers.

And as the instances of Taser firings has increased, so too has the number of complaints and referrals made to the IPCC regarding Taser use.

Staffordshire, for example, which recorded one of the steepest increases in firings – 480 per cent – has been the subject of six referrals so far this year, compared to just one in 2010.

The IPCC has itself expressed concern about the officers’ use of the stun gun.

At a commission meeting in November last year, it concluded that: “The language used by officers to justify the use of Taser suggests that Taser is used as a means of compliance – a use explicitly discouraged by Acpo.”

Channel 4 News can also reveal that despite the rise in Taser usage and complaints and referrals made about use of the weapon by police to the IPCC, there have only been three compensation agreements paid out by police forces.

In February, Devon and Cornwall Constabulary paid £12,000 to an unnamed member of the public who filed a claim for unlawful imprisonment and for excessive force, including the use of a Taser.
In January, West Midlands Police compensated an officer who was accidentally shot by a Taser.
And in 2005, West Yorkshire Police settled with Nicholas Gaubert, who was tasered while he was in a diabetic coma on a bus in Headingly.

The relatively few payouts, and the sums involved, contrast sharply with the United States, where instances of compensation to those unlawfully shocked with Tasers are numerous and often involve huge amounts of money.

In July, a North Carolina jury awarded $10m (£6.3m) in a wrongful death case against Taser International, the gun’s manufacturer, to the family of a teenager who died after being shocked with a Taser in a supermarket in 2008, when he allegedly lunged at a police officer.

Medical implications

A recent report into Tasers and other stun guns carried out in the United States by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) stated that although there was “no conclusive medical evidence” to indicate a high risk of serious injury or death from Taser exposure in healthy adults, “the safety margins may not be applicable in the case of small children, those with diseased hearts, the elderly, pregnant women”.

Amnesty’s Ms Ewart said: “We have always insisted that Tasers are potentially lethal weapons. Therefore they should only be used in a limited set of circumstances… where there is a very serious risk of loss of life or very serious injury… and only by a small number of specially trained officers.”

Humberside constabulary refused to disclose how many times its officers had fired Tasers last year, while North Yorkshire police and Cumbria have not replied to freedom of information requests by Channel 4 News.

(Correction: In the initial report, it was wrongly reported that Durham Police had declined to supply Channel 4 News with their figures. As the map shows, their stats were part of the report. Humberside police did not supply the requested data.)