Bernard Hogan Howe, the newly appointed Commissioner of Police, has said that every police car should be equipped with tasers that can then be made more routinely available to police officers. This may be an encouraging statement of policy to the ranks of the police if it wasn’t for the fact that they have a worrying track record in relation to their use.
Take Cumbria Police as a good and contemporary example. In August of this year, Dale Burns died after he was subjected to what is known as ‘multiple tasering’ (the use of more than one taser charge against an individual). An Independent Police Complaints Commission investigation continues but the unique and somewhat worrying context is that the Cumbria Constabulary have had more recorded incidents of taser use than any other force in the United Kingdom including the Metropolitan Police.
Multiple tasering is an acute cause of concern. In 2008 Amnesty International reported that in the United States there had been 59 deaths following the use of taser charges and 49 were caused by multiple tasering. In the United Kingdom, there have been 158 recorded instances of multiple tasering since the weapon was introduced a couple of years ago.
In many respects these figures alone should be fairly sobering but there is concern about the standard of accountability and oversight by a number of police forces. Surprisingly around a quarter of forces do not record the incidents of taser use by officers. It follows that there can be no real assessment about the propriety of its use or its possible misuse by some officers. Amnesty International with some justification has described the situation as ‘alarming’.
Although there is some training provided on the use of taser for officers, this is not comprehensive and does not consider the legal implications of its use in sufficiently onerous terms. This is not fair to either members of the public, who may be subject to its arbitrary and indiscriminate use, or individual officers who may be held accountable in respect of their actions should serious injury or death result from taser use.
The guidance for use of taser charges is set out in Association of Chief Police Officers’ Taser Operational Guidance Manual which cautions ‘users should avoid prolonged, extended, uninterrupted discharges whenever practicable in order to minimise the… potential impairment of full ability to breathe over a prolonged time period’. It doesn’t suggest that where they act contrary to this they could find themselves the subject of a criminal investigation.
Just to be clear, the nature of any criminal inquiry that follows could be of the most serious nature. The unassailable position seems to be that the use of taser charges, particularly multiple charges, is an act that is likely to cause serious harm to an individual. An officer clearly intends to do this and is therefore left at the mercy of a defence under the Criminal Law Act 1967, section 3 (use of force in the prevention of crime) or the common law defence or self-defence/defence of others if charged with an offence, which could include murder. Although there are no recorded cases of a police officer being charged or convicted as a result of improper or disproportionate use of a taser, a future prosecution may be inevitable over the course of time.
The situation is very unsatisfactory. Cut backs are likely to impact on training that is probably less than it should be, record-keeping is inconsistent and this has consequences in terms of accountability and transparency. The risk of serious injuries or death is not fully appreciated as the use of the weapon evolves. The only sensible conclusion is that Mr Hogan Howe’s plea to roll out wider access to taser should receive a cautious reception and follow, as a minimum, the outcome of the IPCC’s inquiry into Dale Burns’ death and any public consultation that may follow.
Simon McKay is a barrister specialising in criminal, human rights and regulatory law