The Home Office has announced plans to issue Taser electric stunguns much more widely across the police services of England and Wales. Once plans are complete, approximately 20 per cent of officers south of the border will be authorised to carry the weapons.
Home Office Minister Alan Campbell told the BBC this morning that the police did not use Tasers lightly.
"They're used under very strict circumstances and there are very clear guidelines," he said.
"Last year they were only used on 93 occasions out of the more than 600 that they were deployed. We don't expect them to be used as a weapon of choice routinely.
"I am sure one of the intentions is to make sure we don't need to use guns as often."
It appeared that the 93 "uses" referred to by Mr Campbell was the figure for discharges, weapons actually launching barbs to hit and shock an opponent. However, it would be normal (based on previous figures) for this number of discharges to be accompanied by a further fifteen or more "drive stuns", where the Taser is used as a contact zapper. On other occasions, surrender is produced by merely drawing the weapon, illuminating its laser-dot aiming device, or "arcing" - letting a menacing crackle of juice pass between the contacts.
Until 2007, only police firearms officers could use Tasers, and then only in situations where they were also cleared to use lethal force. Such "firearms authority" clearance is normally only given where armed opposition is thought likely.
However, the cops argue that there are also many other situations, not justifying them in using guns, which are nonetheless violent and dangerous - with both police and suspects winding up badly injured as routine. They say that Tasers are actually much more useful in these situations than in gunfights, as it is unfair to expect a cop faced with a firearm-toting enemy to rely on a Taser - which is single-shot only, and has very limited range.
Since last year, both firearms plods and specially-trained trials units in a number of forces have been carrying and using Tasers. The Home Office consider the experiment to have been a success, reducing injuries among both police and suspects, and now intend to purchase another 10,000 weapons and train up to 30,000 officers to use them.
As there are approximately 140,000 police in England and wales, this would equate to around one in five having the option to carry a Taser.
Amnesty International, which has previously called for a moratorium on Taser use, seemed to take a more moderate line this morning. Amnesty spokesman Oliver Sprague told the Beeb:
"Amnesty is not opposed to the use of Tasers but they should be limited."
Nonetheless the organisation thought the expansion of use in Britain was a bad thing. Amnesty is especially concerned that the stun weapons might be used inappropriately on drug addicts or the emotionally disturbed. New York emergency-services cops (think combination SWAT/rescue unit) Tased such a suspect in September, causing him to fall off a building ledge to his death. The case remains under investigation, but the Tasing appears to have violated NYPD guidelines on the weapons' use, and the head of the Emergency Services squad has been replaced.
Famous comedy MP Lembit Opik also voiced his opposition, telling the BBC:
"We're talking about increasing the firepower of the police in a way that I think brutalises the entire service."
Both the Police Federation (rank and file plods) and the Association of Chief Police Officers (management) welcomed the move, however. ®