As a police officer, I was told that the Taser, the new bit of kit that was bright yellow and shaped like a gun, would protect officers and our communities. That they could literally stop a raging bull, take down even the strongest attacker and keep us safe. When first introduced, we were assured that they were the “soft” option. Many police chiefs even stepped forward to be shot with this “safe” option. But now we see that, after several years of use, there have been a number of fatalities.
In a controlled environment, with medical care on hand and with a volunteer who is fit and healthy, everything might seem fine, but on the streets where officers patrol, that benign scenario rarely exists. In the real world the person may have mental health, drink, drug or other issues. This is the situation we seek to contain using this “less lethal” option.
The Taser is supposed to work on two levels, psychological and physical, but if a person has mental health issues the psychological impact of these deadly weapons might be limited. Consider too that there are much higher levels of mental health diagnosis in parts of the black and minority ethnic (BME) community. Statistics show us as three times more likely to be on the receiving end of a Taser.
Eighteen months ago we heard calls for every officer in England and Wales to be given the option of being armed with a Taser to meet the increased terror risk. But I am not convinced that the incidents we have seen in France and Belgium recently would have been stopped by officers carrying Tasers. I still believe our best hope is to stick with the core of what we do best here in the UK: policing by consent, with the support of the public and the communities we serve.
That must mean all communities. The “Peelian principal” – named after the founder of modern policing, Sir Robert Peel – asserts that “the police are the public and the public are the police”. But we know that BME communities continue to have disproportionately high contact with police. This is particularly evident in the area of stop and search, which has already created a mindset of unfairness. We must use our powers with care and sensitivity, and we must do all we can to reduce injury and death at the hands of the state.
As a serving officer I know what it is like to face a man armed with a knife. I have seen the dreadful consequences of knife crime in our communities. What I want is for the Taser to be used to reduce the number of tragic incidents, not increase them. Officers are trained to consider the most appropriate option in the circumstances but ultimately it remains the responsibility of officers and those who employ them to justify their use of force. These decisions are underpinned by legislation, but the law can only ever be a starting point. We must train officers to understand behaviour, to consider all the options, and, in critical situations, to be able to give the vital aftercare that is needed.
As president of the National Black Police Association, I am clearly concerned about the disproportionate use and the impact that Taser use has on our communities. Increasing their use may seem an easy option, but we must always be aware of the concern Tasers are causing in communities already filled with mistrust and fear towards police. The reality is that we are dealing with fragile, vulnerable human beings, and there needs to be more thought before we reach a stage where more officers carry them. When things go wrong, we must be transparent.
It is difficult at this stage to understand the incident in West Mercia involving Dalian Atkinson, who died after a Taser was discharged, but it is vital that thorough investigation is carried out so his family and those closest to him are left in no doubt as to what happened. Our thoughts go out to all involved; our hope is that it never happens again.