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Taser and Black Britain: A hidden human rights abuse

WORRYING DATA: Figures revealed by the Home Office showed black people are three times more likely to be tasered by police

THE BBC’s data gained through freedom of information requests has put a spotlight on a daily practice which disproportionately impacts a significant section of the community who, to date, have had no public forums or recourse for redress for what many view as an injustice.

But this inequality is not new. In April, the Met Police published their data on Taser use for 2014, this showed that 38 per cent of Taser deployments were against people from the capital’s African Caribbean communities, compared to 46 per cent of white people even though black people account for just 10 per cent of the capital’s population.

In October 2013, the London Assembly’s Police and Crime Committee report on Taser use showed that 50 per cent of those who had been tasered in the past 12 months were black Londoners, and the proportion of Emotionally or Mentally Distressed (EMD) people subject to Taser rose from 20 per cent to 30 per for that period.

While deeply disturbing, the injustice that underlies all these figures is sadly unsurprising, given the history of the way Briton’s black communities have been policed since the 1980s.

When Met commissioner Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe announced that Taser would be made more widely available to officers in London back in 2012, Black Mental Health UK (BMH UK) warned in both our written and oral evidence given to the London Assembly’s Police and Crime Committee (PCC) that these ‘less lethal’ weapons would be deployed against black people in greater numbers and those with a mental health condition would be particularly susceptible to its use. Time has proved our warning to be true.

The Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) figures show that the roll out of Tasers in England and Wales has been accompanied by a 232 per cent increase in the overall use of the weapon between 2009 and 2013.

While the mission creep of this weapon is a cause for alarm and an indication of the need for greater scrutiny and restrictions, the covert use against those detained on locked psychiatric wards is an even greater cause for concern and a human rights abuse, which is marked contrast to the reasons that were given for their introduction back in 2003.

EXPECTED: Matilda McAttram says results are unsurprising given the history of the way Briton’s black communities have been policed since the 1980s

When Taser was first rolled out it was initially restricted to authorised firearms officers as an alternative to using guns. Five years later, in 2008, the Home Office changed the criteria to justify its use in operations or incidents where the authorisation to issue firearms does not apply, to include scenarios where officers are facing violence or threats of violence of such severity that they would need to use force to protect the public, themselves or even the subject of their action.


Since then, Taser has been rolled out to ‘specially trained’, non-firearms, officers and it is estimated that 11 per cent of officers in England and Wales are trained to carry the weapon.
Trials for the next generation of Taser weapons are now underway, accompanied by the monitoring and evaluation of the use of this weapon by officers.

But here is a complete absence on monitoring or even making public the disturbing trend in the use of Taser against people who are detained on secure locked psychiatric wards up and down the country.

Those who have been in contact with BMH UK on this issue have been reluctant to speak out publicly because of fear of reprisal knowing that there is no accountability or redress for those in this situation who are often disbelieved.

For too long now the issue of people who are detained under the Mental Health Act who have been subject to Taser while in the care of mental health services has been sidelined.

There is no monitoring of this practice, patients have no recourse for redress and the statutory health watchdog the Care Quality Commission has certainly not afforded this group any protection from this practice.

The United Kingdom has signed up to the United Nations Convention against Convention Against (CAT) Torture. Article 2 prohibits torture, and requires parties to take effective measures to prevent it in any territory under its jurisdiction. The use of Taser against anyone recognised to have a mental health condition is torture and CAT states that torture cannot be justified as a means to protect public safety or prevent emergencies.

There is no reason to believe that coercive practices that are routinely used against people from the community that come into contact with mental health services are different with the use of Taser, this is an injustice, and must be banned.

Matilda MacAttram is a fellow of the United Nations  Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent and member of the Metropolitan Police’s Firearms and Taser Reference Group.

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