Arms-length policing

The Taser stun gun allows police to immobilise a suspect without getting their hands dirty.

Jamie Douglass

Topics Politics

Apparently, police officers across England and Wales are to be issued with Taser stun guns, as authorised by the home secretary David Blunkett (1). The Taser, for those of you who have neglected your small arms studies of late, is a police officer’s wet dream.

It’s a gun, but it doesn’t kill. Instead, it fires out two small darts attached to an electric wire. Upon arriving at felon central, a 50,000-volt shock is delivered that overrides the central nervous system and sends Mr Burglar off to spasm land for a bit – during which time he can be cuffed and carted off. All the benefits of a hand-cannon with none of the tedious lawsuits that can so often arise from a corpse. Of course, the devices will only be issued to firearms officers, so your average bobby on the beat will not be able to ‘deploy’ one arbitrarily.

Aside from the cost – which will be a bit large as the cheapest Taser retails at around $400 (2) – this would seem to be ideal. Police officers have been criticised on the rare occasions when they have shot people who subsequently turned out to be unarmed or mentally ill, and it’s considered unfair these days to expect them actually to go and enforce the law when it’s risky, so it makes sense to give them a ‘non-lethal’ option to add to the arsenal. Doesn’t it?

Well, not to them, it doesn’t. Back in 2001, former Flying Squad commander John O’Connor described the Taser as ‘unreliable and unpractical’. Referring to the case of Derek Bennett (who was shot after police mistook his gun-shaped cigarette lighter for a gun) O’Connor pointed out that if the officers had known that Bennett didn’t have a gun then they wouldn’t have shot him. However, as they thought he did, they did – and they wouldn’t have used a Taser (3). As everyone who has watched The Untouchables knows, you do not take a knife to a gunfight. Although it is tempting to wonder if the police would always rather overreact than under.

So if the Taser will not be used against gun-toting criminals, who are the targets? Presumably all those who have previously fallen into the do-we-get-the-guns-out category. Basically, all the people the police wish they could shoot but hitherto have slipped away. Recidivists who probably should be restrained, but not necessarily allowed within smelling distance: knife-wielders, amateur baseball batsmen and the odd wannabe samurai – after all, that’s what they do in the States. Yes, that is where this piece of technology originated.

It is hard not to imagine Blunkett as a fidgetingly excited schoolboy, gleefully expecting his latest toy brought back from America – the new, special one, that will be so much better than the dreary sticks the police have had to play with so far. It’s the latest development in ‘more-than-arms-length’ policing, only it’s had a few problems over there in the USA – like people dying.

Blunkett is still sleeping nights though, confident that there is a ‘very low risk’ of fatality. It has yet to be conclusively proved that Tasers have actually killed anyone, although in Los Angeles County a medical examiner has reviewed nearly 30 deaths that occurred after use of a Taser. But fret not; the company that makes the weapons strenuously denies that they can kill, and the Chief Executive Officer, Rick Smith, is so confident that he has dismissed all the medical reports linking Tasers to deaths, explaining ‘I know in my heart what the truth is’ (4). Forgive me if I’m a little more circumspect.

There are inherent dangers in using a weapon that gives people an electric shock. The Taser has been extensively tested and emphatically does not amount to a sophisticated way of sticking someone’s fingers in a plug socket, but that does not mean that it isn’t harmful. Injuries related to Tasers have included those caused by the barb, ventricular fibrillation, possible interactions with implanted pacemakers, and secondary injuries from falling (5). While the manufacturer recommends that it should not be used against people with epilepsy or a history of heart problems, it is notoriously difficult to persuade criminals to furnish you with their medical notes just before shooting them.

Since having stun guns will not reduce reliance on firearms, this latest decision amounts to no more than giving the police another weapon to add to the kit belt, and a dangerous one at that. It is easy to see how it could be used as a nastier alternative to the CS canisters they already carry, and while a Buck Rogers plastigun is a lot more impressive than hitting someone with a big stick, I’m not entirely sure that’s the point of law enforcement.

Or could it be that this is another way for the police to absolve themselves from responsibility? Ironically enough, discharging a weapon can involve a lot less culpability than using a baton, as all decisions end when the trigger is pulled. But the police still have to justify drawing the gun in the first place, since they do so in the firm knowledge that bullets kill. The US National Rifle Association is fond of proselytising that guns don’t kill people, people kill people. But as the comedian Eddie Izzard pointed out, the gun does help a bit. The Taser seems to represent the perfect compromise.

Moreover, grappling with an aggressor might get the uniform dirty, or even result in a few broken fingernails. In today’s world of law-enforcement, the safety of the police often comes a long way before all other considerations, as shown by their comparative reluctance to go near criminals until they are sure they no longer constitute a threat. This is ‘risk-averse’ policing, though there may be other, blunter words to describe it.

If using stun guns enables the police to save lives that otherwise would have been taken, then well and good. If, on the other hand, there is a hint of truth in the horror stories, then it may not only be criminals who are in for a nasty shock.

Jamie Douglass carried out postgraduate research into youth subculture at the University of Cambridge, and is currently an intern at spiked.

(1) Police to be Armed with Stun Guns, Daily Telegraph, 16 September 2004

(2) Taser International Web Store Catalogue

(3) Police Consider Stun Guns, BBC News, 1 August 2001

(4) Taser Safety Claim Questioned, Arizona Republic, 18 July 2004

(5) UK Civil Rights Groups Question Safety of Stun Guns, Student BMJ

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Topics Politics


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