The Home Office yesterday announced funding for a further 6,000 Taser electroshock stunguns to be used by police forces across England and Wales. Nonetheless it appears that in London the weapons will not be widely issued, a situation condemned by rank-and-file officers' spokesmen.
The funding for 6,000 additional Tasers is on top of an initial budget for 10,000 made available last year. All of the new flying-cattleprod guns are intended for issue to specially-qualified police not serving in firearms units.
Until 2007, Tasers were only carried by firearms officers and could only be used in operations where coppers were also authorised to use real guns. Such a clearance is generally only given where police commanders believe armed and dangerous opposition is on the cards.
As a Taser is of little use against gun-toting villains (it is single shot, and very short ranged) this meant that the electroshock weapons weren't really much use. Thus, in 2007, the Home Office gave permission for them to be used in non-deadly-force situations, and started a pilot programme in which non-firearms cops were issued them. The idea was that there are many violent confrontations in which guns aren't appropriate, which nonetheless finish up with cops and/or their antagonists getting badly hurt. Rather than clubbing or wrestling people into submission, police would zap them and cuff them.
The pilot scheme was deemed a success, despite vociferous concern from groups such as Amnesty International. They have voiced concerns that Tasers might be dangerous, might lead police to use force unnecessarily, or might be used as a means of torture. Tasers are now being issued to non-firearms cops in various UK forces.
The Amnesty viewpoint, however, appears to be shared by London's Metropolitan Police Authority (MPA), which has so far declined to bid for any of the new Taser funding. Met officers did take part in the non-firearms-officer pilot, which saw Tasers issued to specially trained cops in London's Territorial Support Group (a multi-role unit best known for riot policing). However the MPA stated at the time that this was strictly so as to permit the force to be part of the national debate - not a prelude to any wider use.
Lower-ranking officers' spokesmen have seized the occasion of yesterday's second Taser-funding tranche to criticise the MPA's stance.
"It is extremely disappointing that the Metropolitan Police Authority has not taken advantage of this funding," said Paul McKeever of the Police Federation, representing the bottom four ranks of plods. "Not only does Taser provide a less lethal alternative to firearms but it provides confidence and reassurance to officers when confronted with volatile situations."
The Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) has also endorsed the use of Tasers, saying that they avoid a lot more injuries and violence than they cause - though the IPCC did say that better training should be given on the use of "drive stun" contact zapper mode (as opposed to the more common method where the Taser barbs are shot from the weapon on trailing wires).
For its part, the MPA sent the Reg a statement this morning:
While the Home Office scientific branch published some analysis of use during the pilot, we await the results of a fuller evaluation of the pilot due to be published in May 2009.
The MPA has not been advised by the Met that there is any urgent operational demand for extra Tasers. While acknowledging the useful flexibility the addition of Tasers to the police armoury affords, members of the Authority are also very conscious of their responsibility to reinforce the confidence of the public in the police. This could be affected by an uncalled for increase in the deployment of Tasers, which are still widely perceived as oppressive.
The MPA has famously been willing to clash with the IPCC in the past: the Authority resolutely backed former top cop Ian Blair through a storm of criticism, even after the complaints investigators explicitly condemned his conduct in the wake of the fatal Jean Charles de Menezes shooting.
Commissioner Blair was finally ousted by London's new mayor, bicycling Tory mediatart Boris Johnson - who is now chairman of the MPA. It would appear, however, that the change of city government hasn't so far altered the position on Tasers for the Met. ®