Opinion: Police use of the TASER – what counts as ‘reasonable force’?

Holstered taserMost of us have an idea of what is, and should be, understood by the the term ‘reasonable force’ – presumably, that which a reasonable person would consider reasonable in the circumstances, and generally the lowest amount of force necessary to achieve the desired objective.

However, in the heat of the moment, what one may subjectively regard as reasonable in the circumstances may not be judged by others as acceptable after the event.

As a now ubiquitous piece of police equipment, the TASER is marketed and deployed as a ‘less-than-lethal’ weapon for use in situations where closer quarters contact or other physical intervention methods are likely to be more harmful. The two most common criticisms of TASER use by the police regard its ability to kill and the prevalence of use in circumstances where other methods, such as verbal negotiation, would have been more appropriate.

The United Nations has decreed the use of the TASER as a form of torture that can kill, so how and why did they ever find their way into the hands of our police?

Sussex and Surrey police’s head of operations command, Chief Superintendent Paul Morrison, was recently reported defending the use of a TASER against a fourteen year old girl as ‘low level force’. Surely the circumstances must have included a very serious and immediate threat to life to warrant a peak charge of fifty thousand volts being delivered to a child?

Not really – police are now choosing to interpret their ‘guidelines‘ as allowing the use of the TASER both pre-emptively and against someone who does not not constitute an actual threat at the time. There have been cases of TASERs being used without warning against persons who were found later to be innocent, and they have even been used to surprise a suspect prior to attempting an arrest.

Thus, we must put into effect measures to counter the startling disparity between the high level of equipment invested in our police and the distinct lack of appreciation by some officers for what is an acceptable use of force, because as of now they are over-powered and under-accountable. That there are no formal educational requirements for entry to the police is astounding considering their powers and responsibilties.

Various constabularies are introducing pre-training requirements in the form of the Certificate in Knowledge of Policing (CKP) for persons wanting to begin the process of recruitment to serve as our officers of the law. However, will those already confirmed in role also be required to attain a CKP? Further, outside of training scenarios in the safety of the classroom, how are we ensuring continued assessment of each and every police officer’s mental aptitude and psychological fitness for duty?

* Max Forza is a Lib Dem member whose education and professional experience focuses in law, security, and investigation.

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  • It seems that Paul Morrison is ignorant about the use of tasers and I would question the idea that he should be in charge of anything. He is a disgrace. I would like to see the LibDem leadership take this issue on and ensure that tasers are a last resort.

  • A horrible device whose possession and use should be illegal.

  • According to the report you link to regarding the 14 year old, the girl was making threats with a shard of glass. Tens of thousands of injuries are caused by glass attacks each year. A 14 year old, male or female is more than capable of causing death or serious injury with a shard of glass. You have made the leap to the incident being unjustified without providing any evidence to support this assertion.

    The link regarding the interpretation of guidelines has no information showing that they have been used “against someone who does not not constitute an actual threat at the time”.

    The link related to it’s misuse on an innocent person showed that the police officers who misused the Taser were subsequently sacked and rightly so. Whatever the training or entrance requirements an individual can misuse their equipment. We’re not suggesting banning police from using batons yet one killed Ian Tomlinson in London.

    I’m sure there must be a better examples? If they’re being misused systematically then better control, or even removal, is a cause that needs supporting but I’m afraid the links you have used to support your piece do not show this.

  • Dear Steve (Way),
    Yes there are more examples – many, however, and in particular reference to the example of the fourteen year old girl and her shard of glass, I hope you’ll agree that the use of a device that has the potential to kill a full grown adult is less than reasonable in the circumstances described – we do not give police anti-stab vests and physical intervention training for nothing do we?

  • @Max

    You ask the question “Surely the circumstances must have included a very serious and immediate threat to life to warrant a peak charge of fifty thousand volts being delivered to a child?”

    Sorry, but you have not described, nor has the report you link to, the full details of the incident. Without these it is impossible to state whether the use was justified / proportionate or not. As to stab vests and training, whether or not either was suitable would again require the full details. A 14 year old with a shard of glass is more than capable of inflicting significant and potentially life threatening injuries.

    Was the individual threatening the officers ?
    Were they threatening someone else ?
    Was an appropriate warning given?
    Did the use of the potentially dangerous TASER prevent or reduce the probability of a worse outcome ?

    I did an (admittedly brief) Internet search and could not answer any of these questions. I assume you can provide fuller details.

    It would be horrific if an officer discharged a TASER at a 14 year old without justification, it should have been the almost the last resort (if we assume firearms to be the absolute last result). Unless you can show the officers in question, in relation to the facts of the incident, were unjustified then I state again, this is a poor example to use. You may well be right but you have provided no facts to substantiate the claim.

    You have also failed to demonstrate that police are interpreting the guidelines to use TASER’s against “against someone who does not not constitute an actual threat at the time”. The article you linked to stated they were to be used to “control and neutralise a threat”. Before asking us to accept that these guidelines are not being adhered to and that no threat needs to be present then you surely accept there needs to be some evidence ?

  • It could be that some police officers are too stupid to be allowed near any kind of weapon. I cite the case of the constable who tasered a blind man (Colin Farmer, aged 61) and then claimed that he thought the victim’s white stick was a samurai sword! Oh dear…..

  • PS: Perhaps Specsavers’ ad agency could make good use of that minor police mistake.

  • Dear Steve,
    It is my opinion that the use of a TASER against a child leaves too many variables unchecked to be considered reasonable in any circumstances. Indeed, the point of my article was not to analyse individual incidents, but to question whether our police are mentally and emotionally eqipped for the responsible use of a weapon which has already been linked to hundreds of deaths.

  • Max.

    I will speak loosely regarding the Surrey case, but my points are applicable in general.

    In regard to Steve’s earlier comments, you don’t seem to recognise the fact that at the age 14 (and younger), children can become a very dangerous threat. Police officers are not sadistic, robotic machines that take pride in confronting children. Police Officers are human beings, many of which will have children themselves. The officer in this case that did use a taser on the girl would not of known that she was 14, nor do I think that it would of mattered if he/she did .

    Many 14 year olds possess the physical appearance and capability of older children and even adults, and thus the Police can not be expected to discriminate and offer up their own and the public’s safety in the interest of glass-wielding attackers. You would have a point if the girl in question was much younger, say; 8 or 9 but the girl in question was not. Tasers were developed ESPECIALLY for use in difficult to approach situations, such as a knifeman.

    You counter Steve’s point with the arguement that because the police have anti-stab vests and have physical training they should be able to combat knifemen. Unfortunately, this isn’t Hollywood. Knife defence is incredibly difficult, and this is the reason that the police are trained NOT to confront knife attackers. They are trained to back-off and wait until ‘help’ arrives, usually in the form of a taser. If you don’t believe that danger that knifemen pose, please watch this video and look at how helpless these unarmed police officers are: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cX5CPx4RKWw

    Police are not issued with ‘anti-stab’ vests, they are not stab-proof vests, they are stab-resistant vests. It is more than possible to penetrate one of these vests with a shard of glass, let alone a knife.

    I urge you to contact your local constabulary, talk to both taser-trained and non-taser-trained officers and even go on a ride-along with them. I feel that this experience will prove more valuable to you than your clear regurgitation of scary-facts and ridiculous claims that are in your article.

  • Dear Anon,
    All police officers are human beings, I will agree, however, so are all other civilians, but niether all civilians nor all police are incapable of harming others, and since the United Nations has concluded the TASER is an instrument of torture, I ask again; why are our police still issued with TASERs?
    Since you comment on the circumstances in which the TASER was originally conceived and developed, you have obviously not appraised yourself of the facts – the TASER was devised a non-lethal alternative to the conventional firearm, for use against those who are unlawfully at large in possession of a firearm. It is my opinion that this remains the only acceptable use of a TASER, regardless of the age of the suspect.

  • Sorry Max but I am struggling with your logic.

    In your original piece you ask the question ” Surely the circumstances must have included a very serious and immediate threat to life to warrant a peak charge of fifty thousand volts being delivered to a child?”

    That would seem a reasonable approach although I would personally widen it to include serious harm. Now you would not wish a taser to be used if the subject was not carrying a firearm. In 2011-2012 less than 6% of murders were firearm related. You would seriously ask an officer to leave their taser holstered and watch someone be stabbed to death??? Or would you expect them to try and intervene, because as anon (who I assume is a police officer from his knowledge) pointed out stab vests are able to be penetrated.

    You have still not provided the proof to your assertion that guidelines are being interpreted to allow use when no threat exists.

    Finally, as this has started me looking further I found this http://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/cat/docs/co/CAT.C.NLD.CO.5-6-AUV_en.doc

    This is a recent report from the same UN Committee against Torture who called the weapons into question in 2007 only this is more recent and related to the Netherlands. In the section on Electrical Discharge Weapons (copied below the ### line) they do not call for a blanket ban but for proper training and for them to be used only “where there is a real and immediate threat to life or risk of serious injury”


    Use of Electrical Discharge Weapons (Tasers)
    27. The Committee is concerned about the pilot plan to be reportedly launched to distribute electrical discharge weapons to the entire Dutch police force, without due safeguards against misuse and proper training for the personnel. The Committee is concerned that this may lead to excessive use of force (arts. 2, 11 and 16).
    The Committee recommends to the State party, in accordance with articles 2 and 16 of the Convention, to refrain from flat distribution and use of electrical discharge weapons by police officers. It also recommends adopting safeguards against misuse and providing proper training for the personnel to avoid excessive use of force. In addition, the Committee recommends that electrical discharge weapons should be used exclusively in extreme limited situations where there is a real and immediate threat to life or risk of serious injury, as a substitute for lethal weapons.

  • Dear Steve,
    Thank you for your interest in this subject, I appreciate your opinions and the diversity they have brought in discussion.
    I think your closing sentence best summmarises the general feel of my article; “the Committee recommends that electrical discharge weapons should be used exclusively in extreme limited situations where there is a real and immediate threat to life or risk of serious injury, as a substitute for lethal weapons.”
    I think you understand my point that our police’s guidelines are simply not limiting enough and are too vague, leaving officers too much scope for excuse and too little accountability.
    I will freely offer, that with the benefit of both objectivity and hindsight it is easy to be critical of the police’s mistakes, however, we would all be beyond stupid if we did not take heed of the lessons therein and make suitable changes to the accepted rules of engagement before we are collectively responsible for yet another tragedy.
    Sincerest regards,

  • Richard Dean 15th Apr '14 - 10:50pm

    It surely cannot be liberal to require police to put themselves at unnecessary risk? To do so would be equivalent to guaranteeing a certain number of police casualties every year. As well as being contrary to the police person’s human rights, that would include spouses and children going through the trauma of losing a policeperson parent, families losing a policeperson sibling or child or grandchild. Surely no-one conscious of the right to life should support that?

    Equally, it seems clearly necessary for police to be properly trained in the used of this instrument. But in this incident with the young girl, let’s be realistic, not every young girl conforms to parental idealizations – in fact, most probably don’t, and not just in rough areas. The police alternatives appear to have been:

    > do nothing, consequently possibly risking serious harm to others
    > risk serious harm to themselves
    > risk short-term discomfort to the person threatening people with serious harm

    Surely the latter alternative was acceptable in this case, and credibly the best choice, in a liberal society? It really sounds like an example of a responsible use of a non-lethal Taser, rather than an example of its misuse.

  • It surely cannot be liberal to require the police to put the public at unnecessary risk.

  • Richard Dean 16th Apr '14 - 3:03am

    Agreed, David-1, that’s a good reason to have good training, as well as scrutiny and updates. In the young girl incident, the do nothing option would perhaps have put the public at risk – good that they didn’t do that!.

  • Simon Banks 17th Apr '14 - 8:45am

    There are clearly circumstances where the use of a taser can prevent death or serious injury – for example, where an unarmed officer intervenes as an angry man starts to raise a gun, having threatened to kill someone. The UN position seems too absolute. What is a matter for very serious concern is when they’re used in cases of no major threat, for example where someone runs at an officer who could have used CS gas if not confident of handling the person otherwise. Use of the taser must be subject to the same level of review as use of a firearm by an officer.

  • Richard Dean 17th Apr '14 - 9:34am

    … but then would you complain about the CS gas, Simon? It’s pretty unpleasant too.

  • Max

    The UN has unfortunately fuelled the anti-taser fire by labelling taser as a torture method . This is unfounded and inaccurate. As with any method of physical restraint, there is the potential for harm being inflicted upon the subdued and the subduer. Taser was developed to lower the risk to the subduer.

    You are correct that taser was developed as an alternative use to conventional firearms, but you are incorrect that their development was only intended to be used on those wielding firearms. The whole point of taser is to have a robust method to tackling multiple situations safely, whether it be firearms, knifes etc.

    You ask; ‘ why are our police still issued with TASERs?’
    While I could go over the facts and benefits of taser, I feel a real life example would be more effective. Please watch this video taken in Bedford. http://bbc.in/1bBVIAQ
    In case you don’t watch it like I suspect you didn’t watch the previous video I posted, I will describe it to you.
    The video shows a machete-wielding man running through busy Bedford streets, swinging his weapons indiscriminately as he sprints past members of the public. Many police officers chase after this man, achieving little than to move members of the public out of the way. Note, non of them were armed with Tasers. Surely you cannot deny the futility of the Police’s actions. Non of them are equipped to deal with this situation in any capability. ‘They have batons and CS gas’.

    1. Batons require extreme close range and are more dangerous than tasers (http://bit.ly/1hYJO7l)
    2. CS Gas also requires extreme close range and does not work on everyone. Furthermore, if it did work, it would only serve to blind the knifeman and make him more dangerous.

    The use of a taser in this situation would of proved invaluable. It is only by sheer luck and bravery that this situation did not spiral out of control, need I explain more.

    I fear that you live in your own little liberal, politically correct bubble, where the children of the world are happy playing in the grass and the Police only bob round for a quick cuppa and a chat. Unfortunately this is the real world where people of any age, gender and background can become brutally dangerous, and the Police are woefully unequipped to deal with it. Perhaps you would like to demonstrate how you previously claimed, you can disarm a knifeman with your bare hands and a protective vest (which does not cover arms, head, legs, groin etc).

    I am not a police sympathiser by any means, but I realise the danger than policemen and women put themselves in everyday to protect the public against those that mean to do harm. Clearly, you do not.

    I look forward to the addressing of my points, and hope that you do not dance around them like you did in your previous response.
    – Anon

  • Shirley Campbell 18th Apr '14 - 12:36am

    Yes, David-1, it should:

    David-1 14th Apr ’14 – 10:00pm
    A horrible device whose possession and use should be illegal.

    I note that Shami Chakrabarti of “Liberty” is now voicing her opinions on Lib Dem Voice, although in another context. I am a member of Liberty and I am dismayed that my fellow countrymen, Liberty members included, consider it acceptable to legalise the discharge of 50,000 volts of electricity at a fellow human at the whim of any and all intellectually challenged police officers. In my opinion, the means do not justify the ends and, as such, I shall find it impossible to vote Lib Dem in any forthcoming elections. So, I am a Lib Dem member but I shan’t be missed!

  • Shirley Campbell 18th Apr '14 - 12:40am

    Yes, David-1, it should:

    David-1 14th Apr ’14 – 10:00pm
    A horrible device whose possession and use should be illegal.

    I note that Shami Chakrabarti of “Liberty” is now voicing her opinions on Lib Dem Voice, although in another context. I am a member of Liberty and I am dismayed that my fellow countrymen, Liberty members included, consider it acceptable to legalise the discharge of 50,000 volts of electricity at a fellow human at the whim of any and all intellectually challenged police officers. In my opinion, the means do not justify the ends and, as such, I shall find it impossible to vote Lib Dem in any forthcoming elections. So, I am a Lib Dem member but I shan’t be missed.

  • Hi ‘Anon’,

    In medieval Japan, the samurai were well equipped with ‘personal protective equipment’ and both lethal and non-lethal tools and training. Bushido and, within that school, Hojōjutsu gave the samurai a physical and mental preparedness still very under appreciated outside Japan even today. Jujutsu, also of medieval Japanese origin, is a method which approaches the problem of defeating an armoured opponent in which one generally uses no weapon.

    Since you ask for a demonstration of how to disarm a person wielding a knife,
    I suggest you view this video:
    and this one:
    Note well, the aggressor ‘suffers’ very little, and the risk of death (unlike with TASER use) is virtually zero.

    I will agree with you, ‘Anon’, that our police could indeed be better equipped (physically and mentally), however, the general point in contention is that; with the prevalence of misuse surrounding the current deployment of TASERs and the process by which an individual officer makes the personal decision to deploy the use of the TASER, ‘guidelines’ must be stricter.

    Sincerest thanks and regards,

  • Max,

    Frankly I’m speechless at your response. Your Samurai comparison is akin to comparing apples and oranges. Police Officers do not spend every day and night from childhood training to be Police Officers, in the way that Samurai’s did. Don’t be ridiculous.

    In regards to your videos:

    1. These scenarios are shot in a controlled safe environment, unlike one that the Police continually face.
    2. These practitioners (while using a real knife) are not ‘trying to stab each other’, both know which techniques they are going to employ, unlike a Police officer.
    3. These practitioners are wearing ‘gi’s’, or traditional clothing designed to aid movement, unlike a Police Officer.
    4 . These practitioners are intensely skilled, and are likely masters of their art. This can take decades of training and while I have no doubt regarding their skill, I do not believe that they would be willing to approach a knifeman on the street and disarm them. Police Officers are not given time to physically train themselves to pass their initial fitness tests, let alone become proficient enough to disarm knife-wielding lunatics. You forget that Police Officers come in all shapes, strengths and sizes. Would you expect a 5’0 Police Officer to confront a 6’9 knifeman with only her baton/CS gas? I think not.

    Your arguement that Police Officers should confront knifemen armed with their basic PPE and Ju-Jitsu training is outright absurd and downright pathetic.

    There are various other points I can make, but the main one is that; Police Officers should not be and are not expected to be prepared for all eventualities. When Public Service budgets are cut, and when officers can be single-crewed with appropriate backup is 10-20 minutes away (Woolwich incident http://bit.ly/QlfzSz), Officers should be appropriately armed to deal with potential threats in the interest of their own and public safety.

    You might not like the thought of it, nor do I or many Police Officers, but the Police/Public NEED Tasers in the hands of the Police. It may take a horrific incident to occur before you realise this, but I’m sure that you will find a criticism of the Police in there aswell. I believe that all police should be armed with a Taser, and given much more extensive training.

    You claim that the use of Taser is likely (to some extent) to kill people. Granted, there is some danger involved in the use of Taser but it has been proven that Taser are statistically safer than any other less-lethal methods such as baton strikes, baton rounds etc apart from CS Gas. I invite you to read this thorough US Study conducted on Taser side effects; http://1.usa.gov/1mko2QX

    Granted, there are times when Taser is horribly misused and abused, and those events should be investigated thoroughly. Guidelines do need to be further clarified but not restricted. Further red tape regarding taser use will only contribute to reluctance and hesitation, which puts the public at risk.

    I continue to find all of your arguements against Taser as typical of those wishing to demonise Taser without fully researching the pro’s and con’s.

    I am well aware that your opinions are tragically cemented on Taser use, but I encourage you to conduct some investigative journalism. Contact your local constabulary, request an interview with relevant officers, visit an officer training group and gain perspectives from all sides of the coin. As someone who’s profession lies in security, law and investigation I can ASSURE you that this information will prove invaluable.

    Many thanks for your continued responses
    – Anon

  • I agree with David-1 with the comments raised on 14th April 2014, Tasers should be made illegal! I have been Tasered and it is not a nice experience at all, physically I have not suffered but I believe I have endured a traumatic episode.

    Before the Tasering incident in late Nov 2010, I had never been convicted of a violent crime or no know history of violence and I did or have not possessed an illegal or offensive weapon such as a fire arm or bladed instrument. After the incident I had was convicted of any such crimes either!

    For some reason the local authorities deemed me as a vulnerable adult, based on limited view of my characterisation and behaviour a tactical team of police arrived at my home. I became a little agitated with their presence and refused them entry because I was not shown the relevant warrant.

    However the excessive police presence frightened family members in my house, and eventually the police gained access to my property and deployed two Tasers with in close proximity (less than 2-3m squared). For some reason the police may have perceived my actions as violent or showing a threat of violence.

    However I can categorically state that I was merely agitated with their presence because I knew I had not done anything criminally wrong but they still deployed the Taser at me and one of my family members! I am currently pursuing a complaint and legal advice about my rights as a citizen of the UK!

    There are differences in verbal abuse or aggression and the threat of violence, physical abuse or aggression/violence and it is down to interuptation and perception by the members of the police and their attained levels training to make split second decisions on whether to deploy such a weapon.

    If the police are proven to be too trigger happy then there are potential consequences for all involved with the incident.

    The victim has have to deal with the physical and traumatic effects of being treated more like a violent criminal than a vulnerable adult or child!

    The police have to deal with own conscious as individuals and the issues of legality any potential compensation claims as an organisation after a Taser is deployed.

    As the rate of Taser deployment increases, the more likelihood complaints will be made and more likely compensation cases will be made! I wonder if amount of compensation issued will raise higher than investment into the supply and training of these horrible devices! This would mean a severe waste of money by the government and relevant authorities!

    We are in the UK, and this is not the USA where the 5th Amendment is declared in their constitutional laws. In the UK the vast majority of people are law abiding citizens and should not be subjected to such methods of deterrent measures.

    Post 2004 the Police seemed to survive pretty well without the need to be armed with Tasers! So why now?

    I would like to see any governmental party reconsider the use of Tasers in most police related circumstances! I know I would vote for that policy!

  • Its a torture device so you are tourturing people.
    They might calaim defence bit it is still torture to elctrocute a man or woman, a naked man In a police cell was taserd what reason he was alredy in custody and blind man has been taserd also and no charges brought against police,

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