On Thursday, the small but robust police-monitoring group Stop Watch released a report that makes concerning reading if you're the kind of bleeding-heart liberal who thinks it's bad for the police to electrocute minors.
The cornerstone of the report, a formal submission to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, was the responses to a series of FOI requests on the police use of Tasers against children. Tasers have been deployed – which could mean anything from drawn, aimed or fired – by the Metropolitan Police 185 times against children during the period Jan 2014-Nov 2015, and 16 of those times against children 14 years old or younger. Tasers were fired against children by the Met ten times, including once at a 13-year-old child. In the rest of England and Wales, 28 of the 43 forces that responded to the FOI request (excluding the Met), deployed Taser guns against minors more than 407 times, including 57 times against those 14 or under. Among these deployments, Tasers were fired 34 times.
As is often the case with FOI responses, the information provided is not complete – some forces found ways to avoid or delay replying. But at the very least, we know that 2014 and 2015 saw the police in England and Wales actually fire Tasers at children a minimum of 44 times.
Tasers can reach a maximum voltage of up to 50,000 volts; in 2007 the UN Committee against Torture declared that Tasers cause pain severe enough for them to be considered a form of torture. Last year it was revealed that black people are three times more likely to be Tasered than white people.
Stop Watch believes three articles of the Human Rights Act have been violated, along with four more articles from the Conventions of the Rights of a Child. Perhaps the most shocking thing is we don't really know what effects they have when used on children. Research published by the Children's Rights Alliance for England in 2014 stated that there is a shortage of serious independent studies – but that "the evidence that is available indicates that children are at greater risk of injury to major organs, brain and eyes".
Amnesty International's Oliver Sprague said then that he was concerned there was "no specific guidance on Taser use against young people and children". The obvious medical concern is that children are smaller, and thus more vulnerable: their heart muscles and bones may not have developed fully; it is believed that cardiac rupture is more likely to occur among children. A US Department of Justice-funded report published this February involved participants being subjected to 50,000 volt Taser shocks and then tested for cognitive impairment; it showed "short-term declines in cognitive functioning comparable to dementia".
In short, you probably shouldn't fire Tasers at children. We spoke to Stop Watch's Alice Roberti, who conducted much of the research, about the report's implications.
VICE: Hi Alice. Were you shocked at the findings you got back from the FOIs?
Alice Roberti: Police use of Tasers has been steadily increasing for the past few years, and the FOI responses reflect this, but we were shocked to see it being deployed against so many minors – very young children in particular.
What are you hoping to come of the report submitted to the UN?
Ahead of the UN Committee on the Convention of Rights of the Child questioning the government, we aim to draw their attention to the wide-ranging misuse of police powers against children. Not only do we believe that the use of stop-and-search, strip search and Tasers risk violating a number of international human rights standards, it is significant that the Defence Scientific Advisory Council – the UK government's own advisors – have warned of children being at greater risk of internal injury from Tasers than adults. And official police watchdog Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary has raised grave concerns about current stop-and-search and strip search practices.
What do you hope is done about this?
We would like to see the government take concrete steps to safeguard children coming into contact with police through such encounters and minimise the humiliation and trauma they can bring. We want to see the threshold raised that allows stop-and-search and strip search to be carried out on young children, to have greater monitoring and scrutiny in how these intrusive powers are being used, and see specific guidance be produced on the use of Tasers against children that prohibits them being fired on children 14 years or younger.
There were hundreds of incidences where a Taser wasn't actually fired, but was in some way "deployed". Should we still be worried about that?
Besides being fired, which incapacitates a child through an electric shock, Tasers can be deployed by other means such as "drive stun" mode. This involves the Taser being held against the body and the trigger pulled without probes being fired, purely so as to inflict pain. Of course a Taser doesn't need to electrocute a child to do them harm. We are also concerned about the psychological impact that seemingly less severe categories could have; having a Taser gun aimed at a child, or having that red dot identify them as a target, is likely to cause them severe distress.
In terms of Stop Watch's other work, street-based stop-and-search has fallen since the riots, is that right?
In terms of the total numbers of stop-and-searches, and [racial] disproportionality, those numbers have come down, which is to be welcomed. But we have seen this before – it seems to happen every few years, that you'll get this quite dramatic drop, after a lot of pressure has been put on the police, and then it steadily creeps back up again, and it takes something like the riots, or the Macpherson Inquiry, to curb it again. It's just a cycle really. What we haven't seen any movement on is the focus on drugs rather than on violence. If anything when looking at the total number of stops and searches, the proportion targeting drugs – primarily small amounts of cannabis for personal use – is increasing.
The concern is that as stop-and-search numbers come down, that you get a kind of balloon effect, so what you'll see is an increase in use of other types of powers, such as traffic stop-and-searches, which can be done under the Road Traffic Act. Dispersal orders are another one, because they're not subject to the same checks and balances as stop-and-search.
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