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Taser gun usage soaring among UK cops

Proportion of actual shockings down, though

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The Home Office has announced an increase in police use of Taser electroshock stun weapons in the UK, releasing figures up to the end of February today.

"The number of Taser uses and discharges has increased as more trained police officers have the authority to use them," according to an official statement accompanying the new figures. This suggests that there has been no tendency by police to use the weapons more often. Rather, the rise in Tasings supposedly comes about because more officers now carry them. A pilot scheme in which non-firearms-trained cops were given Tasers began in September.

The Home Office says the number of Taser "usages" between 1 September 2007 and 29 February 2008 was 252. Tasers were actually only discharged - meaning that electric barbs were launched from them to shock a target - in 31 situations, which the Home Office sees as "indicating that drawing or aiming the Taser is enough of a deterrent in most situations".

The Home Office seems statement is disingenuous on several fronts. Firstly, the 252 usages from September to the end of February refers only to the new "specially trained unit" (STU) taser plods. Most taser usage in the UK is actually by authorised firearms officers (AFOs).

Looking at government figures just for the AFOs, we see that in the three months and ten days from 20 July to 30 November 2007, the firearms cops made use of their Tasers on 163 occasions. Over the following three months up to 29 February, the same policemen used Tasers on a further 290 occasions, a rise of more than 77 per cent.

The AFOs, unlike the new STUs, haven't been manning up over this period. They are simply using their Tasers a lot more often, and the government should probably admit this rather than trying to pretend it isn't happening.

Another bit of naughtiness is the suggestion that drawing and aiming usually does the trick. In fact, you don't need to "discharge", or fire, a Taser in order to shock someone with it. The weapon can simply be placed against a suspect for a contact zapping, without being discharged. This move, known to the police as a "drive stun", isn't included in the "discharge" numbers.

In fact, the real figure for Taser use across the UK since last year is not the Home Office headliner of 252 uses with 31 stunnings. Buried in the relevant pdfs, we find that there were 705 usages from last July to February, including 155 discharges with barbs fired and a further 33 "drive stun" shockings. Suspects were shocked 27 per cent of the time when Tasers were drawn.

Furthermore, quibblers will note that it's actually very rare for drawing or aiming to produce surrender. Most of the cases where subjects weren't actually shocked involved cops using the Taser's red-dot aiming device to scare people. Often they found it necessary to go further and "arc" their weapons, causing a visible crackle of juice to pass between the contacts.

There's probably a case to be made for Tasers, despite the media hysteria around their use. Being shocked is very nasty, but it's kinder than almost anything else the police might do to make people comply with lawful orders. The stunguns may make casual brutality a little easier, but in fact a naughty truncheon-flick or kick to the groin of a cuffed suspect isn't much more difficult, and a lot easier to deny afterwards - given that Tasers generate records automatically whenever they get used. The unpleasant reality is that being a helpless prisoner leaves you open to abuse. You don't need a Taser or even a stick to torture or abuse captives in the most excruciating fashion; all you need is the will to do so.

That said, the sort of shiftiness the Home Office has seen fit to indulge in today doesn't help their argument at all. They'd do better to admit the truth - that Taser use is simply becoming more popular among British police - than try this kind of silly obfuscation.

They might even point out that the proportion of cases involving actual shocking is down overall; since April 2004, when the AFOs first tooled up, people have been shocked in almost 40 per cent of incidents - but over the six months to February, this had fallen to 27 per cent.

Anyway. Crunch the numbers for yourself, here and here. ®

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