“Tasering Children” – A Response
February 25th 2015 – Today, the media is alive with the garish headline that UK police have used taser 400 times on children in one year.
This information has been published following an FOI request from a journalist – a favoured way of finding a story. It wouldn’t be so bad if the journalists actually provided some full context but they generally don’t. FOI is a means by which public bodies can be held to account but, having seen many of the requests in my time, they are too frequently used with the headline predetermined in the question.
I suspect that the journalist in question had “police use taser on X number of children” in mind before the story was ever complete. I guess it has to be this way otherwise you wouldn’t have a place to start but what follows is just a stream of raw data with little or no context.
The headline itself is, again, factually true. I’ve seen this defence used a lot over taser and armed policing coverage but often the headlines are framed in a way which presents a very clear image which – when you look a bit deeper – is somewhat misleading.
Interestingly, it has been altered once to replace “use” with “drawn”. An important distinction but not one they chose to run with initially.
This example hinges on definitions. Has taser been used 400 times on children. Yes – but it depends on your definition of use and children.
What this headline invites you to believe is that police have fired taser 400 times at children.
Police define use as drawing and pointing – as well as actually “firing.”
The use of the word children is factually and legally correct but it draws no distinction between a bunch of pre-schoolers and what other agencies might term “young adults.”
It is an emotive choice when “teenagers” could have been used and been just as factual.
What the data actually tells us is that taser has been pointed at 400 children aged 11-17.
It has actually been “fired” 37 times at children aged 14-17.
The article does not, at all, explain what any of those children were actually doing at the time.
I’d bet my mortgage that none of them were apple scrumping but we simply do not know.
It is right that police are accountable for their use of force in any event and today the service is defending itself from the accusation that it is heavy-handed and indiscriminately using an electric stun device on children. Kafka-esque
I have blogged many times about taser. Someone, somewhere along the line, has decided that the police need a measure between use of hands and use of firearms which allows officers to rapidly incapacitate a violent or armed person. Whether you like it or not there is a clear need for such a device.
Taser is currently the only thing on the market until someone invents a “knife repellant spray.”
Come to think of it – they sort of did and they are called CS or PAVA.
The problem with both of these is that they are hard to aim, not always effective and require the officer to be at close range to a subject. CS is also well known for its ability to “absolutely, positively wipe out everyone in the room.” (Cue Samuel L Jackson.) What good is an incapacitant which successfully contaminates everyone including the police officers who are trying to control a situation?
There are range of tactical options available to police officers when faced with extreme violence and each one must be fully justified. Believe it or not, Taser is considered to be lower on that scale than baton or spray because it is less likely to cause long term injury. Some forces still insist on taser use being authorised by a senior officer before it can be used. (Unless the situation is such that an officer feels they must self deploy because of what is happening immediately in front of them – it is for that officer to justify their actions.)
So here is the list:
1. Do Nothing
2. Tactically withdraw
3. Talk / negotiate
4. Use unarmed defence tactics – physical force. Sometimes in numbers.
5. Handcuffs (should ideally only be used on a compliant person)
7. Incapacitant spray
9. Police dog
10. Baton round
Shields can also be considered at any point both defensively or offensively but need to be full length (about 6 foot) require more than one person to use the tactics correctly and cannot be transported in standard police cars.
In reality, in a volatile and rapidly escalating situation the officer has their brain, mouth, hands, body and whatever equipment is on their belt.
In reality that officer has seconds to make a decision and then a lifetime to justify it.
There really is very little difference between a 17 year old wielding a knife and an 18 year old wielding a knife but only one set will be captured in these figures.
There is actually very little difference between a 14 year old wielding a knife and an 18 year old wielding a knife. Teenagers today are often big and strong and, when armed and angry, are capable of causing great damage or injury to others.
Age should always factor into any dynamic risk and threat assessment but it cannot be the sole factor.
Person running amok, agitated, violent, armed, smashing things up, hurting others or threatening others – rushes police on arrival.
Age will factor here but so will the difference between police officer and subject. Let’s say that the person here is 5foot8 and well built and armed with a baseball bat. The first officer at scene is 5foot2.
There are many things to consider in a threat assessment but the principle ones are:
How much risk is being posed by the person and to whom?
How immediate is that risk?
What are the consequences of not intervening?
What it the best option for resolving this safely, quickly and with minimum injury to all concerned.
Sometimes backing off and walking away will be the right choice. Other times it really won’t.
David Blunkett has helpfully said today that officers should use “more traditional methods” when dealing with violent children. He hasn’t explained what they are but look at that list above again – remove taser from the list and those are the options.
It is a pretty ugly list anyway. Every option from 4 upwards involves the use of a degree of force and there is currently not 100% safe, child-friendly way of dealing with extreme violence when the time for talking is over.
Sometimes that point can be reached very quickly indeed. Irrespective of age.
Nobody WANTS to use taser on juveniles. But sometimes it is the least injurious way of resolving a very violent and dangerous situation.
The real question this article raises is what can or should society be doing to reduce the likelihood of young people becoming this dangerous. It ignores the fact that, quite simply, some children are capable of horrific violence and that sometimes it is necessary to use force to deal with it.
So long as that force is necessary, proportionate, legal and justified then the police have complied with the law.
If we are not to use taser to deal with exceptionally violent people of any age – then someone better come up with a Plan B pretty quickly.