I spent this afternoon as the guest of Surrey Police at their Guildford Headquarters. As regular readers might remember, I was invited by the Chief Constable, Lynne Owens, to observe officers’ training after a discussion on Twitter where I questioned the use of Tasers by British police officers.
Communication with the public is rightly very important for British police forces. In this country, we are policed ‘by consent’. The founder of the police as we know it, Robert Peel, said, “The police are the public and the public are the police.” Policing should not be seen as something done to us, rather as something we are involved in. Police are scrutinised minutely in the media and are always under financial pressure, so it would be understandable if they were defensive or uncommunicative about subjects such as Taser. I’m happy to report that all of the officers I spoke to today were the opposite. They were keen to answer all my questions, to which they listened carefully and communicated in English which I could understand, not police-language (“I was proceeding in a northerly direction on foot, your honour” for example).
I have written previously, elsewhere, about the potential of a police force of professionals, “intellectuals” pejoratively, and how I supported ordinary police officers being able to analyse policing broadly and deeply. I might need to take some of that back now because it is already happening. I spoke to constables who, in the next few days, might be dealing with violent offenders by force in real life who explained analytically how they deal with certain situations, how they comply with procedures and how they prioritise public safety above their own. I wasn’t expecting that.
I arrived at Police HQ just before 12.30 and signed in. I was expected and Chief Superintendent Charlie Doyle’s PA, Sandy, quickly appeared in reception to welcome me. At 12.30, the time on my itinerary, Charlie arrived, closely followed by Inspector Andy Grand. The interactions between different ranks in the police is new to me. It is not at all like the army, much more like airline pilots: although in uniform, first names are used and occasionally, “skipper” or “boss”.
There were three observers of today’s training. My companions were Assistant Police and Crime Commissioner, Shiraz Mirza, whose responsibility is Equality and Diversity, and Deputy Police and Crime Commissioner, Jeff Harris, a former police officer.
The ten trainees were Taser qualified officers on their annual recurrent training and assessment. The required training is set down nationally by ACPO and can be found on page 10-015 here. The part that we watched included exercises in pairs, watched by the other trainees, dealing with scenarios set up by the four instructors. Then each trainee was filmed doing a solo exercise for the pass/fail assessment. Two instructors wore thick protective suits and full helmets to protect them from the Taser projectiles or anything else the trainees might subject them to.
Now, I don’t know if these trainees and instructors were chosen because we were watching but I thought they were all very competent and treated the exercise as real life. Everyone was debriefed in front of the group after the first scenarios in pairs. This reminded me of my simulator checks as an airline pilot. Even if you have a successful conclusion you can be expected to explain why you made the decisions you did. Not all of the trainees passed but given the intensity of the scenarios I could hardly fault any of them. We were warned that ‘inappropriate language’ would be used during the role-playing. There was some swearing by the instructors while simulating offenders or mentally distressed people, but nothing you don’t hear on the Today Programme.
I don’t think the group was hand-picked to give us a good impression because they were all white males. All ten trainees, four instructors, two senior officers and three observers, except Shiraz, were white males.
The main emphasis of the training was decision making. The Taser itself is a simple, easy-to-use device. At the end, I was given the opportunity to fire a live cartridge, as opposed to the dummy training ones used during the exercise. When the safety catch is removed a red laser target dot appears. This is where the top projectile barb will hit. The lower barb will hit the target below this. The further the target is away, the lower it will hit. The barbs penetrate clothing and stick into the skin beneath. Then a current is passed between them, pulsing 19 times per second and using up to 50,000 volts. A successful hit causes most people involuntarily to collapse to the ground. While the current is applied, the target will remain immobile but could leap back up immediately the 5 second discharge ends. By pressing the trigger again, the target, if still attached, will be incapacitated again.
In scenarios where the officers were threatened by people with knives or crowbars the Tasers were drawn quickly, warnings shouted and they were fired. There were two scenarios where Tasers were not actually fired, although they were drawn. One was where the suspect said he had doused himself in petrol, CS gas was used when he started slashing himself with a knife. The other was when the person threatening the officers dropped his crowbar, although he continued threatening them, they holstered their Tasers and grabbed his arms to handcuff him.
When considering using force, officers have to use the National Decision Making Model. However, this is inevitably based on their perception of the situation at the time. The only officers equipped with Tasers in Surrey are ‘response’ officers. They get called out to deal with 999 calls, for example. I think there is a reasonable expectation that they will be met with violence in doing this. If they did not have Tasers they would use batons, CS spray or police dogs. From what I have seen, the other methods would be more dangerous, even to people with serious health conditions. Many of these officers’ customers are suffering from mental health disorders, some hoping to commit ‘suicide by cop’. Officers in these kinds of situations have to make difficult decisions quickly so it is difficult for me to maintain my opposition to Tasers in this context.
For criminals who are thinking rationally, the Taser could have a deterrent effect. If an officer is pointing a Taser at you, there is only really one option: comply. However, I am concerned about the possibility of an arms race between police and criminals. If criminals know that all officers carry this weapon they will be more likely to attack first. Happily there are no plans, or budget, to extend Tasers beyond the response teams. If a neighbourhood police officer chats to underage youths drinking or causing a nuisance to their neighbours, the presence of a weapon like this would escalate the situation and make them feel forced to comply rather than agreeing because it is the right thing to do. This is my remaining concern.
Reassured but still watchful
From what I saw today, I do not believe Surrey Police officers would deliberately use a Taser in an inappropriate way. Also, although I still believe Tasers are dangerous, for example being shot in the face by a barb, the alternatives when faced by a level of threat justifying its use are worse for the person on the receiving end.
When a Taser is fired a little bit of what looks like confetti is spread on the ground. These tiny discs have the cartridge’s serial number on them. All uses of Tasers are logged and investigated. Whatever the costs pressures in future it is vital that this continues to ensure the approved tactics are always followed. Surrey Police only fired Tasers 18 times last year but they have only been using them for 4 years. As a Surrey citizen I expect every use of Tasers to be justified and in accordance with ACPO policy. Also, I do not want every police officer I see to be armed with a Taser. This would be an escalation and move police further away from the public.
Thank you Surrey Police
Surrey Police took a risk by allowing me to observe their training. All of the officers I met are proud of their role in keeping the rest of us safe. I tried to be polite when I pressed them on challenging questions to do with Tasers and I received only patient polite relevant answers. I liked the throw-away comment from one, “you won’t read that in Sophie Khan’s articles”. It reminded me about how pilots are exasperated when David Learmount comes on Sky News to speculate about a plane crash. I assure you, reader, that I didn’t succumb to Stockholm Syndrome, but I was very impressed by the professionalism and openness of all the officers. In particular, I’m grateful to the officers under assessment for allowing me to watch.
Police find themselves in difficult dangerous positions regularly and like everyone will make mistakes from time to time. If the standard I witnessed today is maintained and Tasers are only deployed as frequently as they now are, then I feel reassured by what I saw.