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Should the use of tasers be changed?

We take a look at the key findings and themes reported by the IOPC on taser use

Executive summary

The IPOC review of cases involving the use of taser 2015/2020 was published on 25 August 2021. The report makes a number of key findings and in particular that police forces must respond to the disproportionate use of tasers against black people and be able to justify its use when children and vulnerable people are involved. It makes 17 recommendations as detailed further in this update.

The findings

The IOPC reviewed 101 independent investigations of which:

  • 108 people were subject to taser use, 94 of which were subject to a Taser discharge.
  • 71% were white, 22% were black, less than 4% were Asian and less than 2% were of mixed ethnicity.
  • The average age was 35 years old with six people under the age of 18 years.
  • 26 investigations led to a case to answer finding or a Crown Prosecution Service referral.
  • 42 organisational learning recommendations were issued in relation to 16 cases.

Type of taser usage - there has been an increase in the use of taser. They are issued far less than ground restraint and unarmed skills, but are used more than other types of equipment including irritant sprays and batons. In most cases the taser is not discharged.

User of taser in potentially unsafe locations – in 14 cases officers had not considered adequately the risk of injury to individuals based on the environment and the individuals’ vulnerabilities as part of their ongoing assessment.

Multiple and prolonged discharges – in under a third of the cases the individual was subjected to prolonged discharges. Eight incidents involved a continuous discharge for more than 20 seconds and in seven incidents there were multiple prolonged taser discharges. Mental health or acute behavioural disturbance were common features in these incidents. 

Taser use for compliance -  The IOPC noted that in some cases tasers were used for compliance only in contravention with the College of Policing guidance. In some cases, officers failed to identify and as a result failed to consider, how a person’s vulnerabilities may affect their ability to understand and comply with instructions.

Use of taser in custody or medical settings – A relatively small number of cases involved the use of taser but the IOPC remains concerned about the incidents.

Use of Taser in ‘drive stun mode’ – it was noted that this is no longer taught in training because it is ineffective. However, whilst there has been a slight reduction of use, it is still being used.

Death – 16 of the cases reviewed involved a death. In four inquests, the use of taser in combination with other factors contributed to or were relevant to the individual’s death. It was noted that the use of a taser was considered to be a lower level of force by officers. However, the College of Policing 2020 analysis noted that discharging a taser is associated with increased odds of the individual being injured and hospitalised and with officers being assaulted and injured. Drawing a taser on the other hand was likely to reduce the likelihood of officers being assaulted.

Children – There remains a concern about the use of taser on young people, particularly in light of the limited research around both the physical and psychological risk of taser use on children.

Mental health, drugs and alcohol – mental health is a common feature in taser incidents and officers should be trained on how to effectively approach incidents involving vulnerable people. Drugs and/or alcohol were a factor in just over half of the cases reviewed with many of those also having mental health concerns.

People reported to be violent, aggressive or resisting and in possession of weapons – it was noted that this was the most likely scenario where an officer reported use of force by taser.

Communication - in under a third of cases, the IOPC identified potential missed opportunities for officers to de-escalate situations, by use of communication and negotiation skills. In a third of cases, officers made inappropriate comments, some of which were of a derogatory nature.

Disproportionality and discrimination – black people were, as a proportion less likely to be subject to a taser discharge but were more likely to be involved in cases where a taser was aimed or red dotted. Where tasers were discharged, 60% of black people were likely to be tasered for prolonged periods compared to 29% of white people. The IOPC noted that it was not clear from the data why black people were more likely to be involved in taser use but not in taser discharges. However, they acknowledged that there is a body of literature indicating that black people are more often subjected to stereotypical assumptions and can be perceived to be more threatening. They note that there is a perception that deprived minority communities are being over-policed and selectively criminalised. As a result, such communities have lower levels of trust in the police and report concerns about unconscious bias and stereotyping and how this can predetermine officers’ responses and their perception of threat.

Recommendations

  • To review and improve the Taser Authorised Professional Practice (APP) guidance on the types of situations in which taser use would be appropriate including for particular groups, the risk of taser and how officers can assess risks and mitigate them; and reinforcing that tasers should not be used to elicit compliance.
  • To review how effective current training is in ensuring that officers understand the importance of assessing the surrounding environment and any risk of injury to the individual when making decisions about whether to use taser, particularly in relation to vulnerable individuals.
  • To evaluate the effect of the new conflict management guidelines upon policing practice and whether it places sufficient emphasis on communication and de-escalation techniques.
  • To ensure that taser training provides officers with an understanding of race disproportionality in taser use, and the impact this has on public confidence and community relations with the police.
  • To ensure that relevant stakeholders are kept informed about the implementation of the new proposed quality assurance scheme for taser training.
  • To continue to monitor nationally and locally the use of taser in drive stun mode and actively discourage officers from using the taser in this way.
  • To review the College of Policing, APP and the Royal College of Emergency Medicine Guidance on the use of taser on someone displaying signs of acute behavioural disturbance in an emergency department to avoid potentially conflicting messages being given to the officers and medical practitioners.
  • To review the collection, collation and presentation of use of force data in partnership with relevant stakeholders and in particular to provide greater information on linking incidents to capture the number of individuals involved in an incident; capturing multiple users with a single incident; capturing all uses of taser, not just the highest; the intersectionality between protected characteristics e.g. a breakdown of taser use by age and ethnicity, mental health and ethnicity; and wherever possible, that officers ask individuals to provide self-defined information.
  • To ensure there are effective internal processes for monitoring and scrutinising taser use and in particular, its use against certain groups including people from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds, people with mental health concerns and children.
  • For police forces to establish and support mechanisms to ensure community members can oversee and scrutinise taser use locally, particularly its use against certain groups.
  • To explore local arrangements on the monitoring and scrutiny of taser use, with a view to assessing the need for a national minimum standard of taser monitoring and scrutiny.
  • & 13. For Forces to ensure that effective monitoring and scrutiny mechanisms are in place regarding the use of taser in controlled settings and against children.
  • To progress and undertake independent national research to better understand the use of taser on people from ethnic minorities and black people in particular.
  • To commission a comprehensive literature search on the use of taser on those experiencing acute behavioural disturbance or with mental health concerns, longer term research into the risk of prolonged and/or repeated taser discharges and research into the psychological impact that taser can have on particular groups of people.
  • To support a culture in which local communities are regularly engaged on force decisions around taser use and provided with the opportunity to inform force policy, practice, guidance and training.
  • To review communication and media strategies to ensure that narratives around taser use recognise the validity of community concerns in relation to taser and the impact this has on public confidence in policing.

Comment

The report has met with mixed reviews. The Police Federation and NPCC both make the point that the report only considered 101 taser uses in a five year period, which represents 0.1% of all taser uses for the same period (94,045 uses) and were disappointed that they were not consulted as part of the review.

The NPCC stated that the report was vague, lacked detail and ignored extensive work already underway. However, they share the concern about the disproportionate use of taser on young black men and noted that they have already been working with national independent advisors and the College of Policing to independently review this disproportionality. 

Regardless of the opposing views, the IOPC report makes some interesting observations and with more officers being authorised to use tasers (as at September 2019, 30,548 officers were taser trained, with this number set to increase) it is always important for training content and policies to be regularly reviewed and where necessary updated. Both the NPCC and Police Federation acknowledge the importance of continued improvement. There is no doubt that tasers are a valuable tool for keeping both the public and police safe and steps should be taken to ensure public trust and confidence of its use in all communities. 

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