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Tasing of unarmed opposition peaks among firearms cops

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The latest Home Office figures show Taser usage by English and Welsh police firearms teams in non-firearms situations has peaked. However, overall plods' usage is up as the weapons are being more widely issued.

Two categories of coppers carry the stun guns: Authorised firearms officers (AFOs), and specially-trained ordinary police (STUs) taking part in a series of pilot schemes across the nation.

AFOs have had Tasers since 2004, but until last year could only use them in situations where they were also cleared to use lethal weapons. Such "firearms authority" clearance is typically issued where armed opposition is thought likely.

Last year, though, the Home Office decided to try out Tasers for use in less serious situations. British cops are routinely involved in non-firearms dustups which nonetheless involve serious injuries both given and taken. The idea was that use of the flying-cattleprod compliance technique would allow less rough-housing, and everyone in better shape afterwards.

The downside to letting plods zap people who don't have guns or other serious weapons is that they might get too casual about it and wind up gratuitously electrifying anyone who gave them a bit of lip - or even torturing people.

Hence the interest in Taser usage numbers, and possible grounds for worry in the fact that to begin with the AFOs' usage of Tasers in non-firearms situations soared by 77 per cent quarter on quarter. The same group of police, with the same access to Tasers, were using them in less-serious situations much more routinely - though the proportion of actual shockings was down somewhat, with more cases resolved by merely drawing or aiming a Taser - or sometimes by "arcing" it, letting a menacing crackle of juice pass between the contacts.

However the latest quarterly figures show that English and Welsh AFOs in non-firearms situations shocked people on 75 occasions during the quarter ending in May, down from 92 over the previous quarter. "Drive stun" contact zappings - as opposed to proper flying-cattleprod "discharges" - made up 15 and 14 of those figures respectively. AFOs' Tasers left their holsters on 274 occasions this latest quarter, down from 290 last time.

These declining figures might be because the new STU Taser plods are tackling more jobs which would formerly have gone to AFOs, of course, and there isn't really enough information to draw conclusions from yet. It's pretty much impossible to learn much from the STUs' usage figures, as they have been seriously increasing in numbers during the period the numbers were collated.

Overall, though, the AFO figures seem to hint that there is a line beyond which coppers won't use Tasers and that the firearms units may have reached it. Whether that line is in the right place, of course, will no doubt remain a subject for acrimonious debate.

Those wanting to check the numbers before opening fire can find them here (latest), here (2nd quarter) and here (1st quarter). Bear in mind that these figures refer only to forces south of the Scottish border. ®

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