The president of the National Black Police Association has expressed concern about the disproportionate use of Tasers against ethnic minorities in the wake of the death of former footballer Dalian Atkinson.
In an article for the Guardian, Janet Hills said it was too early to understand what had happened during the incident in Telford, West Mercia, which demanded a thorough investigation.
But she warned that black and ethnic minority people were three times more likely to be on the receiving end of the weapons when discharged by officers, according to official figures, and the situation is not improving.
Hills urged forces to resist calls for every officer in England and Wales to be given the option to be armed with a Taser in the face of the heightened terrorist risk.
She said large-scale attacks, such as those in Belgium and France recently, would not have been stopped by officers carrying Tasers, and while increased use felt like an easy option, “we must always be aware of the concern they are causing in communities already filled with mistrust and fear about their interactions with police”.
Atkinson, 48, died on Monday about 90 minutes after an incident outside his father’s home in Telford, Shropshire, involving two officers in which he was reportedly tasered three times.
The Liberal Democrats have accused the government of “sitting on a report” about the safety of Tasers that was completed for the Home Office in December but has not been published.
The independent inquiry, by the scientific advisory committee on the medical implications of less-lethal weapons (SACMILL), was commissioned after the death of Jordan Begley, a 23-year-old factory worker from Manchester, was linked to the use of a Taser last year. The Guardian understands that the study was completed in December but officials have claimed that it was not a formal assessment and was never intended to be a public report.
In her article, Hills questioned some of the assumptions about the safety of the “less lethal” weapons.
She said that as a police officer she had been told that Tasers would protect her colleagues and communities. “[I was told] that they could literally stop a raging bull, take down the strongest attacker and keep us safe. When first introduced, we were assured that they were the ‘soft’ option.”
But she said it was now clear that there had been a number of fatalities. “In a controlled environment, with medical care on hand and with a volunteer who is fit, healthy – and not on drink or drugs – everything does seem fine, but on the streets where officers patrol, that benign scenario rarely exists.”
Instead, she warned of mental health, drink and drug issues, with some of the factors being more prevalent in parts of the black and ethnic minority community.
“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 support of the public and the communities that make up the UK.”
Asked about Hills’s comments, a Home Office spokesperson said: “It would be inappropriate to comment on an ongoing Independent Police Complaints Commission investigation [into Atkinson’s death].”
Sources have suggested that the findings of the SACMILL report have been communicated to police forces across the country, but not the full study.
The National Police Chief’s Council, which saw the report, said: “On the basis of the evidence available to the committee at that stage, SACMILL’s opinion was that the current medical statement on the Taser X26 system remains applicable.”
However, the group did take action in response to the findings. “SACMILL also made some comments and in light of these observations, the NPCC has reinforced that police forces pay particular attention to specific training on the use of Taser in confined spaces, including use of angled drive stun; the preferred target area of probes attaching ‘above and below the belt line’, and understanding the difference in probe spread when firing from a ‘straight arm’ and a ‘braced hip’ position.”
The Lib Dem home affairs spokesman, Alistair Carmichael, said it was disgraceful that the report had not been made public in the face of more fatal incidents.
“The Home Office cannot afford to waste any more time and must publish this report immediately. Any delay will be seen as a betrayal not only of the British public but of the police, who need to learn lessons so this never happens again.
“Tasers might be a good alternative to an armed police force, but the UK prides itself on policing by consent and their place in a police officer’s toolkit has, rightfully, come into question.”
SACMILL is responsible for ongoing assessments of the medical implications of Taser use, and does publish those on its website. However, the inquiry was a separate piece of work done after the NPCC asked the committee to review its assessments in the wake of Begley’s death.
Sources said ministers were committed to giving officers the tools they needed when facing potentially violent situations. But they said accountability was critical, pointing to Chief Constable David Shaw’s in-depth review that called for the publication of data on ethnicity, age, location and outcome of all Taser use. They said the deployment of the weapons was an operational matter for chief officers.
There have been at least 17 deaths linked to the use of Tasers since they were introduced in 2003.
In July 2014 the Independent Police Complaints Commission found that none of the eight deaths it had completed investigating at the time was directly caused by Tasers. Since those investigations were completed, there have been nine more Taser-linked deaths.
On Tuesday a 23-year-old man was Tasered after Metropolitan police stopped the car he was driving. The man was taken to hospital by ambulance as a precaution.
He was arrested on suspicion of possession of a firearm after a search of the car recovered what is believed to be a Mac10 machine pistol and ammunition. He was later discharged from hospital and taken into custody at a south London police station.