On Tasers, policing and imagining new responses to violence


With the recent announcement of Tasers being made more widely available for use by the police in the UK, black feminist organiser and Global Health postgraduate Sarah Lasoye argues that the health community must take notice.

police officer holding Taser © Christopher Paul / Flickr / Creative Commons

During her keynote speech at Conservative Party conference, Home Secretary Priti Patel announced a new ring-fenced fund of £10 million to arm up to 60% of frontline police officers with tasers. The announcement follows a series of police-related promises Patel has made since her appointment this July. From the recruitment of 20,000 new police officers, to the rollout of a new stop and search pilot seeking to give the police more Section 60 like powers, it’s clear that this government remain insistent on the false-narrative that increased police powers will prevent crime. 

We know for a fact that this is not the case. Indeed, figures from the Office for National Statistics have shown that decreased stop and search policies in recent years actually correlated with an overall decrease in violent crime. Even Theresa May proposed a scaling back of stop and search powers in response to mounting evidence of the initiative’s racism – with black people being nine times more likely to be stopped by the police than white people, and only one in ten of those stops leading to an arrest. Of course, Patel is not the first politician to weaponise the posturing of being “tough on crime” in hopes of gaining popularity with the public. The tactic has endured precisely because of its lack of complexity, and avoidance of any responsibility to meaningfully engage with the social issues that become causes of crime. 

As someone most interested in the re-framing of state and interpersonal violence as a health issue – and interrogating who, what and how the state chooses to criminalise – I believe this move towards the increased use of Taser is one all who care about health justice must stand against. It’s important for us to critically analyse the implications of widespread access to Taser amongst police officers.

Tasers were first introduced to the police force in the UK in 2004, as a supposed alternative to a conventional firearm. The devices themselves are handheld stun guns, which operate by propelling two electrodes towards their target and delivering a high voltage shock, to render an individual paralysed. First and foremost, the argument that these weapons are a harmless alternative to guns must be dispelled. Tasers can and do cause harm. They can cause serious physical injury; lung punctures, head injuries, seizures, cardiac arrests, lasting psychological damage, and are also potentially lethal. The claim that the physical effects of Tasers last only temporarily, is predicated on tests carried out on individuals without pre-existing health conditions. 

Those with such health conditions are at increased risk of potentially lethal harm, and police officers cannot ascertain whether this is the case during such an interaction. In the US, where the weapon is widely used, there were over 500 deaths following the use of taser between 2001-2012 alone. Research from Cambridge has shown that simply carrying a Taser increases the likelihood of violent interactions with the public; police officers visibly armed with taser being 48% more likely to use force, and also more likely to be assaulted by members of the public. 

Ultimately, we can’t have a conversation about responding to an increase in violent crime, and not include the role of the police in that conversation.[mfn]Many of the following statistics and ideas are set out in this thread on Twitter by Gracie Mae Bradley of human rights organisation Liberty: https://twitter.com/graciemaybe/status/1180086171101122561[/mfn] Police can be and have been perpetrators of violence in communities that they claim to serve, and we have to talk about who, disproportionately, is on the receiving end of the use of police force. In the UK, although black people make up 3.3% of the population, they are subject to 12% of uses of force by the police, and are four times more likely to be Tasered by the police than white people. There were also 839 uses of Taser on children in the first 9 months of 2018, with over half being from an ethnic minority background, rising to 70% in London. Considering the criminalisation of those most vulnerable in society, it’s also unsurprising that between 2017-18, there were just under 100 uses of Taser against people within mental health settings. For well over a decade Tasers have been used against patients within locked psychiatric settings. The number and nature of these deployments remain unclear, as regulatory bodies largely have left these cases unmonitored and investigated. 

To quote Liberty’s Gracie Bradley, “it’s meaningless to describe society as ‘increasingly violent’, if police and state violence aren’t part of your analysis. Militarising police is not about violence, it’s about social control.” 

Militarising the police by arming them further is not going to make our communities safer. It is essential now that our critiques begin to move beyond methods of policing (how many, how armed) and onto policing itself. The state’s focus on increasing police powers distracts us from understanding the roots of social problems – and so too absolves itself of any responsibility to do the same. We must consider the state’s hand in reproducing violence through deprivation, criminalisation and over-policing of our communities.

As people who work or are interested in health, we must be concerned with how the world we live in creates the conditions for violent crime, and understand that increasing police powers and incarceration will do nothing to begin tackling the structural and systemic causes of crime. 

An approach which attempts to deal with violent crime after the fact is always already too late, and so we must take it upon ourselves to broaden our understanding of what it means to care for someone beyond the healthcare setting. The principles of transformative justice invite us to develop alternative responses to violence – ones that neither replicate or reproduce it, but instead focus on addressing its structural and societal causes – and provides a logical place to start.

Further information

  • The annual United Families & Friends Campaign (UFFC) remembrance procession for those who have died in the custody of police and prison officers, in immigration detention centres and in secure psychiatric hospitals will take place on Saturday 26 September in London. More details can be found here.
  • You can read more about the intersections between mental health, race and death in state custody here.