House of Commons Library

Taser use in England and Wales

Published Monday, September 12, 2016

This Commons Library briefing paper details the introduction of the Taser to policing in England and Wales, sets out the training and operational guidance provided to officers issued with the weapon and summarises the controversy around its use.

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The Taser is a brand of stun gun developed, manufactured and sold by Taser International, an American company. The Taser is a prohibited weapon in the UK. It is an offence punishable by up to 10 years imprisonment to possess, purchase, acquire, sell or transfer the weapon without the authority of the Secretary of State. Police officers are exempt from this prohibition.

Introduction in the UK

The Taser was first introduced in the UK in 2003. Following a trial of the use of the weapon by firearms officers in five police forces, the then home secretary David Blunkett authorised the use of the Taser throughout England and Wales. It was available only to authorised firearms officers for use in accordance with the criteria set out in guidance issued by the Association of Chief Police Officers. These restrictions were relaxed in 2007 by then Home Secretary Jacqui Smith. Following a further trial, authorisation was granted for the use of the weapon by all trained officers in 2008.

Training and operational guidance

To be issued with a Taser, officers must have completed the National Less Lethal Weapons training in the use of the device. There is an initial 18 hours of training over a period of three days, augmented thereafter by six hours of training per annum. Training is delivered by in-force trainers, whose lead instructor will have been trained by the national instructors of the College of Policing.

A Taser is deemed to have been used in any of the following scenarios:

  • drawing the Taser in circumstances where any person could reasonably perceive the action as a use of force
  • sparking of the Taser, commonly known as ‘arcing’, as a ‘show of strength’ aimed at deterring a suspect
  • aiming the Taser or placing the laser sight red dot onto a subject
  • firing a Taser so that its barbs are discharged at a subject or animal
  • application and discharge of a Taser in both angled and drive stun modes
  • discharge in any other operational circumstances, including an unintentional discharge.

Any use of the Taser must be proportionate, lawful, accountable and absolutely necessary. Its use for a reason other than mitigating a threat of violence may engage Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights (the prohibition of torture and of inhuman or degrading treatment).

Medical implications of Taser use

The Defence Scientific Advisory Council Sub-Committee on the Medical Implications of Less-Lethal Weapons (DOMILL) released its most recent (and final) statement on the medical implications of the use of the Taser in January 2012. It highlighted how the physiological burden arising from the Taser-induced muscle contractions and pain, combined with the stressful circumstances in which the Taser is likely to be used, may adversely affect certain groups. It also warned of the potential for Taser discharge to be administered to individuals whose behaviour is influenced by an underlying medical condition or with whom communication is impaired due to non-medical reasons.

Recent reviews and controversy

A review of Taser use by the Independent Police Complaints Commission in 2014 warned against use of the weapon on the basis of its availability rather than of its necessity. The IPCC was particularly troubled by Taser use in the controlled setting of custody suites.

In July 2016 the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child renewed its previous call in 2008 for a prohibition on the use of the Taser against children.

Following the conclusion of the jury at the inquest into the death of Jordan Begley that the discharge of a Taser has more than minimally and materially contributed to his death, there was a fresh review of the medical evidence as to the safety of the weapon. The inquiry is said to have reported in December 2015 but the Home Office does not intend to publish its findings.

There is considerable concern as to the use of the Taser against ethnic minorities. Addressing the relationship between the public and the police in February 2015, then Home Secretary Theresa May cited evidence that suggests that black and ethnic minority people may be more likely to be Tasered by police. The BBC subsequently claimed it had seen figures suggesting black people are three times more likely to have a Taser used against them than white people. These concerns were reiterated following the death of former footballer Dalian Atkinson in August 2016.

Police Taser use

On 28 April 2016 the Home Office published statistics for the use by police of the Taser in 2015. In 2015 there were 10,329 uses of the Taser by police representing a 2% (234) increase from the previous year.

Of the 10,329 uses of the Taser, 19% (1,921) were discharges which was a decrease of 3% (-68) from the previous year. 81% (8,408) were non-discharges; an increase of 4% (303) from the previous year.

The official statistics for the use by English and Welsh police forces of the Taser in 2015 are available on the GOV.UK webpages.

Commons Briefing papers CBP-7701

Author: Terry McGuinness

Topics: Firearms, Police

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