The number of times that Avon and Somerset police officers have used tasers has doubled in the last four years, at the same time as the government is seeking to increase the availability of the devices in what has been labelled a ‘worrying erosion of safeguards’. Police in Avon and Somerset used Tasers more than 1,300 times in the last year, and it has been announced that volunteer officers are set to be armed with the stun guns.
Home Secretary Priti Patel announced at the Police Federation Conference on Tuesday, May 17 that special constables will now be allowed to carry Tasers, if authorised by their chief officers. Volunteers will receive the same Taser training as constables. There are around 8,900 volunteer officers in England and Wales, who have the same powers and uniforms as paid officers.
But statistics show that taser use has increased among officers in the Bristol area. In 2020/21, the most recent figures available, Avon and Somerset police officers used Tasers 1,316 times, up from 1,078 in 2019/20, 733, in 2018/19, and 643 in 2017/18.
That was despite the pandemic and repeated lockdowns, which saw many types of crime fall. Tasers, the brand name for Conductive Energy Devices, can fire a high-voltage shock to temporarily disable a suspect.
However, in most of the uses in Avon and Somerset (881) the Taser wasn’t discharged. Non-discharge uses include 120 where the Taser was drawn, 82 where it was aimed at a person, 644 where it was activated to place a red targeting dot on a person, and 35 where it was arced, where the trigger is squeezed so that electric current arcs between the two contact points on the front of the Taser.
However, in 153 incidents in 2020/21 the Taser was discharged, including 136 where the Taser was fired from a distance and 17 where it was triggered in contact with a person. Most uses of Tasers by Avon and Somerset Police involve adults.
However, in 2020/21 there were five incidents where Tasers were discharged against children aged 11 to 17, and 62 where Tasers were used but not discharged. The Home Office said that allowing special constables to carry Tasers will ensure they are not “at a disadvantage when facing an attacker wielding a knife or a marauding terrorist”.
Tasers were introduced in the UK in 2003, initially limited to firearms officers. Their use was extended in 2008, to non-firearms officers who complete the required training.
According to Home Office figures, Tasers were used 34,429 times in 2020/21, up from 32,058 times in 2019/20, 23,451 in 2018/19, and 16,913. In 2009, figures show 3,128 uses of Tasers, although the figures may not be fully comparable due to changes in recording.
While the use of Tasers has been rising, crime levels have generally been falling since the late-90s. According to Crime Survey of England and Wales (CSEW) estimates, crime was up 18 per cent in 2021 compared with the 2019.
However, the rise was down to fraud and computer misuse offences, crime excluding these decreased by 13 per cent compared with 2019. CSEW figures show incidents of violent crime dropped by 8 per cent in 2021, while crimes involving knives and sharp instruments were down 4 per cent.
Amnesty International policing expert Oliver Feeley-Sprague said: “Arming volunteer officers is a dangerous expansion of Taser use and will inevitably lead to the increased firing of Tasers. It’s our understanding that specials will be subject to a rigorous assessment prior to being selected to undergo Taser training, but arming volunteers who receive less training overall and do less hours on the job is a worrying erosion of safeguards over Taser misuse.”
The Independent Office of Police Conduct (IOPC) carried out a review of Taser uses between 2015 and 2020, looking at incidents where they have been discharged. It found examples of Tasers being used in potentially unsafe locations or circumstances, and found evidence officers had not adequately considered the potential risk of injury to individuals.
A quarter of cases reviewed saw Taser used for compliance, and in just under a third of the cases, potential missed opportunities were identified for officers to de-escalate situations. The IOPC are concerned about the increasing use of Tasers on children (11 to 17 years), and on vulnerable people with mental health or drug and alcohol issues.
The IOPC also said concerns about race discrimination and disproportionality is one of the most common issues raised by community groups and stakeholders in relation to Taser use. It recommended the College of Policing ensure that Taser training provides officers with an understanding of race disproportionality in Taser use.
In the IOPC review, 22 (22 per cent) of the individuals involved in independent investigations were black, despite black people making up less than four per cent (4 per cent) of the population. In the cases they reviewed, black people were, as a proportion, less likely to have been subjected to a Taser discharge than White people but were more likely to be involved in cases where the Taser was aimed or red-dotted.
However, when black people were subject to Taser discharges, they were more likely to be tasered for prolonged periods . 29 per cent of White people involved in Taser discharges were subjected to continuous discharges of more than five seconds, whereas the figure was 60 per cent for black people.
A spokesperson for Avon and Somerset Constabulary said: “The safety of officers is paramount and it’s vital we equip them with the skills and tools required to carry out their jobs effectively and without fear of harm. Policing can be dangerous and while we regularly deal with difficult and hostile situations, no-one should come to work in fear of being assaulted.
“We take an evidence-based approach in deciding how many officers carry Tasers based on the current threat and risk levels. We currently have 664 Taser-trained officers in Avon and Somerset (not including specialist firearms officers).
“All officers equipped with Taser are highly qualified and undergo a rigorous selection process. This training focusses on use of force, decision making, officer safety training and first aid.
“We were also the first force in the country to introduce de-escalation training to all frontline staff, which gives officers the skills to defuse hostile situations through negotiation. Tasers are a last line of defence and are only fired when absolutely necessary.
“We regularly release our use of force statistics while the Police and Crime Commissioner’s Scrutiny of Police Powers Panel, which is an independent panel made up of people from across our communities, monitors and scrutinises the use of police powers – including cases involving use of Taser. This independent oversight and scrutiny ensures there is transparency and accountability.”