Cambridgeshire Police to Consider Amnesty International’s Views on TASERs

Thursday, May 14th, 2009. 12:25am

don't taser me

I attended Cambridgeshire Police Authority’s Professional Standards Committee on the 13th of May 2009 and watched them discuss the expanded TASER deployment to non-firearms police.

The only elected individual present was Cllr Kevin Wilkins. While I don’t think there is the appetite for directly elected police authorities I think more existing elected representatives could be appointed to them. Who ought be appointed would depend on the particular local area, in Cambridgeshire I would include a member of Cambridge City Council, in other areas MPs and elected Mayors could be included. I would like to see authorities themselves and all their committees have a majority (at least) of elected councillors.

A report on the expanded TASER deployment was presented by Assistant Chief Constable Mark Hopkins. He started by correcting an error in the minutes of the last Professional Standards Committee and in a report to that committee in which the police had told the authority they had only taken 50 extra TASERs from those offered by the Home Secretary, they had in fact taken 150.

Member of the Authority, Jayne Wright, asked how many TASERs the force currently held. She was told 50, and then asked if that meant the total following the new batch would be 200, she was told that was right, the force had (or would very shortly have) about 200 TASERs. ACC Hopkins continued saying TASER was at the centre of a national debate on use of force and expressed the view that “TASER is less forceful than a baton”. He then made a statement which surprised me even more – he said that no forces had as yet deployed TASER to non-firearms officers other than those which are involved in trials. This raises a question over if trials in the police are ever considered to have been completed and what the status of the Metropolitan Police’s Territorial Support Group TASER use is (perhaps all their officers are firearms officers).

ACC Hopkins then made a statement which is line with an argument I have been using to support the restriction of TASER to firearms officers. He said : “There are skills relating to TASER which have a good fit with firearms”. He said that a “Way Forward” committee/workshop had been held with Police Authority members during which member Olive Main had been “red dotted”; she must have an incredible amount of of faith in the police.

Talking about the officers who will be TASER trained if there is an expanded deployment ACC Hopkins said that identifying appropriate officers would be important. He said that TASER training takes eighteen hours. As he said that in the present tense I presume he means TASER specific training for firearms officers.

Cllr Wilkins first asked if the 150 new TASERs would result in more TASERs out on the streets of Cambridgeshire. He asked how many TASERs were currently: “kept in a cupboard, so to speak?”. While he didn’t get a direct answer ACC Hopkins repeated that only firearms officers, from the Tactical Firearms Unit currently had TASERs in Cambridgeshire. Presumably the fifty weapons already held are sufficient for them and the new ones have been put in the “cupboard”?

Cllr Wilkins tried another question and asked if, as a result of the new 150 TASERs we would see more TASERs out on the streets being carried by officers. ACC Hopkins didn’t answer the question, he said something completely irrelevant and told the committee that even removing a TASER from a holster counted as a deployment of TASER and that the next levels of use were arcing and then a red-dot. He pointed to the large fraction of incidents at which a TASER was deployed that were dealt with once the red-dot was applied. The police told the committee that they expected the wider TASER deployment to result in fewer people being subject to the use of force, they expected fewer uses of the baton and fewer uses of pepper spray. ACC Hopkins said that the wider TASER deployment would result in a lower use of force. He continued justifying the police’s proposed deployment by saying there have been incidents involving mentally ill people who would have been shot had a baton round gun or TASER not been available.

Impressively Mr Wilkins calmly, after listening to all that from the police officer, simply asked his question again. He said: “Will we see more officers carrying TASER?”

This time ACC Hopkins simply said: “Yes”.

Jayne Wright asked what was meant by the report when it said the constabulary had recorded 433 TASER authorities between 1 January 2008 and 15 December 2008. It was explained that the Tactical Firearms Unit officers carry the weapons routinely but that their use was, on occasion, specifically authorised in advance.

This prompted the chair of the meeting, Benjamyn Damazer, to give a long spiel about how authorisation is a valuable safeguard, providing checks and balances before a TASER gets used. He expressed concern that this would be lost if the wider deployment of TASER to non-firearms police went ahead. I think Mr Damazer and the other authority members missed the fact that self-authorisation by police officers for use of TASER or firearms is possible, and the police officer didn’t enlighten them.

The committee were reassured again that officers would be appropriately trained. I am concerned though that if officers are indoctrinated with the same kind of material that ACC Hopkins had used to base his views on – that TASER is a lesser force than pepper spray or a baton then that training might not be particularly worthwhile.

Benjamyn Damazer asked the police what they meant by “external consultation” which they proposed prior to any wider TASER deployment. The answer given sounded very woolly to me and included the phrase “looking at the impact on communities”.

Cllr Wilkins spoke again to say “I am disturbed by the idea of more officers being armed with TASER. What I would like to request is that we (the committee) ask you to look at all the evidence from the USA and Amnesty International which suggests that TASER are not as “less lethal” as is being claimed. He said that both this committee and the Police Authority itself ought consider their views on the TASER rollout.

This prompted the chair, Benjamyn Damazer, to say that the Authority had already held discussions with the Chief [Constable] and it had been agreed that the deployment and use of TASER was an operational matter for the chief but that the authority expected to be informed, to a greater extent than usual with respect to operational matters, about progress.

ACC Hopkins said that the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) advice was that TASER was safe and that was based on PSDB (Police Scientific Development Branch) / HOSDB (Home Office Scientific Development Branch) which had conducted significant testing on the safety of TASER.

Impressively Mr Wilkins responded: “That does not imply we ought trust them”, ACC Hopkins said it was not for the Cambridgeshire Police Authority to challenge them. I thought this was an astonishing statement. ACC Hopkins then appeared to offer the committee the ACPO TASER evaluation reports – something I think they ought accept as they have to-date been kept secret (ACPO is a private company not subject to the Freedom of Information Act).

Mr Wilkins said that some recognised TASER as being more dangerous than the sales pitch would have us believe. Benjamyn Damazer supported the police saying that the National Policing Improvement Agency had also sanctioned TASER use and questioned what scope the Police Authority had to “nay say” that.

The Chief Executive of the authority asked the police if it would be possible for them to spell out the evidence base more clearly, and asked Mr Wilkins if that was what he was proposing.

The chair, Mr Damazer, said he didn’t know how useful that would be and asked: “How would the committee or the authority weigh up that evidence?” He made the obvious point that it wouldn’t be a case of counting the number of studies for and against. I think its very worrying that he doesn’t think individual authority members are able to read documents and make up their own minds and decide how to vote. I don’t think a vote of the full authority even crossed his mind; though given the number of pro-establishment individuals on the authority a vote against the police view would be very unlikely.

ACC Hopkins on behalf of the police weighed in again saying “It would be entirely inappropriate for Cambridgeshire police authority to reconsider evidence which has already been considered nationally”.

The Chief Executive suggested the views of other members be heard, and the chair turned to Jayne Wright, she appeared not to have been following the discussion and went off on a tangent saying how she would like to look in detail at some specific circumstances where TASER has been deployed. (Cambridgeshire was not a trial force, there are no such circumstances to be reviewed where TASER has been used by non-firearms officers yet). The Chief Executive politely pointed out she was asking for her opinion on if the police ought be asked to provide the evidence they had used to draw their conclusion that TASER was safe and explain their reasoning. Jayne Wright didn’t appear to understand what she was being asked and didn’t respond.

Mr Wilkins filled the silence arguing: “We are entitled to set policing policy, if we consider a bit of kit too dangerous to use in certain circumstances we can say so”.

The Chief Executive then coaxed Ansar Ali, a member of the Authority into saying something, he said that he accepted the TASER depolyment was an operational issue and was happy as long as officers were properly trained. When prompted to comment on the question under discussion – he said he had not looked at any evidence himself, and added : “As long as there are proper checks and balances”.

A representative of the IPCC, Len Jackson, was present at the meeting. He said the IPCC position was cautious support of expansion. He said there were no UK based statistics on fatalities due to TASER and that the NPIA and Home Office had based their view on the trials and other evidence. He also outlined the IPCCs new position whereby it will require all discharges of TASER to be referred to them; he said they would probably investigate uses in drive stun mode, particularly where the TASER had been applied to the head/neck. The committee were told the IPCC would provide statistics on TASER related complaints. He added: “You’ve got 16 police dogs out there all the time, its only when one bites someone that we investigate”. He said that he thought those who had been both TASERed and bitten by a police dog would probably prefer the TASER.

Mr Wilkins said that he wanted to press his suggestion that the Police provide evidence and reasoning to a formal amendment. Due to being in an election period he said that he would not release any quotes on the matter or publish a press release. What he asked for was the police to include a consideration of new evidence including the Amnesty International reports when they brought their next report on TASER to the authority. He explained what he wanted them to do was read the evidence and come to their own conclusion either that their view was unchanged or perhaps come back and say: “Gosh, they’re more dangerous than we thought”. Mr Wilkins said that if the Amnesty International reports had been considered by ACPO then just reporting their comments on it would be of interest – he said he’d want to know what weight, if any, ACPO put on Amnesty’s report.

Mr Wilkins’ amendment was seconded by both Ansar Ali and Jayne Wright (well both indicated a willingness to second it), the chair agreed – and those being the only four committee members present (they were out numbered by non-voting officers and others) Mr Wilkins’ amendment was passed and Cambridgeshire Police will now be reading the Amnesty International TASER reports and seeing if they change their view on the safety of TASER.

I am happy that Mr Wilkins has finally started to use his role on the Police Authority to question this deployment of TASER to non-firearms officers I have been lobbying him and urging him to do just this for some time.

Cllr Shona Johnstone a Conservative County Councillor and a member of the committee didn’t attend (the Chief Executive noted following a query from the Chair that Cllr Johnstone was in good health).

See also : A letter to my MP sent in September 2007 opposing the expansion of TASER to non-firearms police and my other articles on TASERs.

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