Policing of the G20 Protests - Home Affairs Committee Contents

6  The Use of Tasers

66. In the light of Sir Paul Stephenson's suggestion after the event that a review of the tactics and methods the police use to police demonstrations is needed, including the possible use of "distance weapons" like water cannons[74] this Chapter will also briefly examine the use of Conducted Energy Devices (CEDs) (commonly known as "Tasers") while policing public protest as a possibly less "confrontational" and therefore safer tactic. We will first discuss the deployment of Tasers to front-line officers and the circumstances in which they should be used.

67. Tasers have been available to all firearms officers since September 2004. In November 2008, the then Home Secretary (Jacqui Smith MP) announced plans to widen the use of Tasers to some front-line officers, following a twelve-month trial in ten forces. These officers are "Specially Trained Units" and must spend a minimum of 8 hours in initial training and attend annual "refresher" courses for 6 hours. Taser are currently authorised for use in operations or incidents where officers are facing violence or threats of violence of such severity that the use of force is needed to protect the public, themselves or the subject. While we are not aware of any plans to extend the use of Taser beyond this, we considered it useful to put our views on the matter on the record.

68. Tasers are indeed a useful tool for the police, and any equipment which may protect the police and the public from harm is to be welcomed. It is pleasing that initial trials suggest that in many cases the mere threat of a Taser, so-called "red-dotting", is sufficient to remove the threat[75] and in certain situations, such as when dealing with violent drunks for example, the use of Taser is preferable, and less dangerous to the subject, than the use of a police ASP or baton.

69. While we are confident that the Taser is a useful tool from the perspective of the police we remain wary of endorsing its use on a more general basis for two reasons. Firstly, the use of a Conducted Energy Device may pose a health risk to those subjected to it. While there have been no recorded deaths attributed to Taser in the UK, Amnesty International told us that nearly 350 people [have] died after being tasered in the USA and Canadian where Taser is used far more routinely[76]. The risk to people with heart problems or similar health issues is exponentially higher than with the use of an ASP. Amnesty International argue that the use of Tasers should be limited to situations where there is an imminent threat of death or serious injury. In November 2008, the Metropolitan Police Authority expressed concern that wider deployment of CED had the potential to cause "fear" and "damage public confidence".[77]

70. Tasers do have a role in policing. As an "alternative to lethal force" they are undoubtedly preferable to firearms and in certain situations, ASP batons, in dealing with a violent threat to an officer, members of the public or the subject themselves:

It [Taser] is specifically a weapon that is targeted at an individual to bring him under effective control when he is behaving extremely aggressively or violently.[78]

We praise the efforts made to prevent the incorrect use of Conducted Energy Devices and to prevent fatalities and introduce accountability through measures such as the fitting of data ports which record when the taser is fired.[79] We have no doubt that the police are currently making every effort to prevent fatalities through the incorrect use of a Conducted Energy Device.

71. The decision to extend the deployment of Conducted Energy Devices to some non-firearms officers, and the training they receive, should be kept under review. The use of this weapon on a general scale poses many issues regarding public safety and more widespread use of Tasers would also represent a fundamental shift between the police and the general public. British policing is based on consent and face-to-face engagement, the use of Taser has the potential to erode that relationship and create a rift between the police and the policed. Furthermore, we would not endorse any move to authorise its wider use beyond dealing with a violent threat.

72. British policing is traditionally based on engagement and policing with consent. British policing involves face-to-face communication and negotiation, and this is particularly the case when policing large-scale events. However, this doctrine in British policing does contain one major drawback; not only, as at the G20, can it lead to protesters and police being contained in close proximity to each other for hours in a tense situation but:

We as a service come toe-to-toe far quicker, probably, than any other police jurisdiction in the world… which does then mean that we put our officers and our specials and others in that very invidious situation of being toe-to-toe with sometimes a violent and antagonistic crowd, and then having to work out who are the decent people and who are those that are trying to attack me. [80]

73. This is obviously a difficulty which UK police have to face and increases the stress and tension all officers, but particularly those lacking experience, must face when policing protest. In this context some have suggested that the police should change their own guidelines and equip officers policing public protests with Conducted Energy Devices which would reduce the likelihood of the police being in close proximity with potentially violent protesters and in turn lower the risk posed both to protesters and police by creating a cordon sanitaire between the two groups. This section briefly discusses this argument.

74. We have been told that in certain circumstances, particularly those where what is required (as decided by a trained officer) is an "alternative to lethal force"[81] the use of a Conducted Energy Device is an appropriate response. However, while a Taser may be of value in specific circumstances, these circumstances are limited, and are not those found in a large public protest. The dangers of using a Taser weapon against a crowd are that it is likely to be indiscriminate, because you cannot target an individual;[82] the officer could be overpowered and the Taser taken from him, Taser used in a crowded area could easily cause panic and in a protest situation the cords of the Taser could easily be entangled in the crowd preventing assistance reaching the victim. While Taser is undoubtedly effective in the right circumstances its presence at an already tense large-scale public protest would merely increase the potential for injury and prove counter-productive.

75. We recommend that the police continue their self-imposed ban on the use of Taser in public protest situations. More generally we urge the police to reject the use of "distance weapons" in policing demonstrations. Instead of investment in expensive equipment to give the police "distance" while policing large scale protests, we suggest that the money could be better spent on training for front-line officers and in the planning of operations, removing the need for such "distance weapons".

74   "Police may use water cannon to control violent demonstrations", The Times, 9 May 2009. Back

75   Ibid. Back

76   Q2. Back

77   Jacqui Smith's Taser plan suffers blow after Met Police Authority's rejection" The Times, 25 November 2008 Back

78   Q8 Back

79   Q39. Back

80   Q366. Back

81   Q1 Back

82   Q8 Back

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