A departure from my normal witty titles, respecting the fact this post is about the recent death of a specific person. (It’s also a work in progress).
The death of Dalian Atkinson after being tasered during arrest has hit the headlines. As with any death following police contact (which includes if you were in contact as a suspect, prisoner, victim or witness and if you die up to 48 hours after your contact), it’s automatically referred to the IPCC for investigation. Doesn’t matter if the police shoot you as you rob a post office, or if you walked into the station for 30 seconds to hand in a lost wallet then dropped dead of a heart attack 2 days later, it’s a death in police contact.
No sane person can object to the basic principle that any death at the hand of the state should be fully and openly investigated. Although I would be wanting answers too if it were a member of my family, much of what they’re asking for is already out there, freely available.
So, the medical evidence:
1/ Taser does not affect pacemakers or implantable defibrillators. The manufacturers designed it not to, and independent tests confirm it.
2/ Taser is a far far safer way of stopping people than the more traditional methods, largely involving simple physical violence.
The LAPD studied the effects of taser use and the risk of hospitalisation or death versus other methods, namely physical force, going hands on, batons or firearms. Taser caused 0% injuries (beyond the two puncture wounds caused by the barbs, which only need an Elastoplast), the other types of force caused between 45%-78% risk of hospitalisation, some of which caused death.
A study in the States, with a much bigger sample size than is available in the UK, concluded that the risk of of a taser contributing to death when appropriately used was around 1 in 1,000. They suggested that the true risk of a taser causing death in itself was nearer 1 in 1,000,000, but let’s go with the lower figure. And remember there is a significant difference between causing death and contributing to death.
There’s also a report from the American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology indicating that at the worst possible placement of the two taser barbs near someones heart, there is less than a 1 in 200 chance of the taser discharge affecting the heart in a healthy individual, and such interference would normally be resolved by the next routine heartbeat anyway.
There’s also a sample of 1,000 random taserings in the Journal of Emergency Medicine here which recorded 997 of them as having no injuries beyond the barbs needing an Elastoplast and the usual scrapes and bruises associated with falling over. The other 3 were one injury and two deaths. It does not cover the cause of death, other than to say effects on the heart were NOT the cause.
Please also bear in mind that all these reports are written by American doctors, all members of the American Medical Association. The AMA ban their members from taking part in state executions on ethical grounds, clearly demonstrating their independence from both state and federal government.
It’s actually difficult to find statistics on the levels of injury caused by Taser use in the UK as opposed to other forms of force, believe it or not. The Home Office has reams and reams of studies about how it has been deployed, and how many people have complained about it, but very little on the injuries it does or doesn’t cause. So I cannot give anything more specific as to the medical effects here. Like many other people, I will await the results of his autopsy at the inquest with interest.
As they may have a conflict of interest, I have pointedly avoided using any information provided by Taser International themselves.
The taser unit itself records the time and date it is fired, the number of times it is fired, and times out after a 5 second discharge, forcing the user to reassess if it is needed before they reapply the trigger. It will be interesting to see if the witnesses perceptions of how many times it was fired is accurate. They also drop hundreds of miniature ID tags on the pavement to show exactly where the user was when they fired.
I’ll also address the frankly insane suggestion from Sophie Khan, a solicitor who makes a good living in chasing down claims in situations where police have to use force, and regularly criticising police actions from her comfy airchair, without having the first idea of the practicalities of it, or coming up with any better suggestions. Her latest suggestion is that police should be able to shoot people in the legs with a taser to disable them. Lets start from the point that a firearm is a much more precise tool than a taser, and that it’s impossible to shoot a firearm with that level of precision, and knock out one or two more myths along the way
A bullet in the arm is highly unlikely to make much difference to a physically fit and deranged male in the scenario we’re discussing. A bullet in the leg is slightly less impossible in practice, but shooting a small pointy piece of metal at 2,500 feet a second near to someones femoral artery is not the safest suggestion I’ve ever seen.
Let us grant the following extremely unlikely possibilities :
A firearms unit is available and gets to the scene at the same time as the normal response unit. Highly unlikely – to give an example, my force puts out about 120 or so response cars on a late shift, and only 6 firearms cars.
The officers get there, see the suspect and in the heat of the moment, can fire with sufficient certainly to hit an arm that is flailing about on a male running at them. No army or police force in the world trains people to try this, for the simple reason that it isn’t physically possible. Even the SAS don’t do it. The leg is only slightly less impossible to hit.
You’ve then got several problems. Firstly, the bullet will go right through their arm or leg and you’ve got to worry about where it goes next. It still has enough force to kill someone else, and it will be tumbling by now, heading off in a random direction.
Secondly, it won’t stop him, he’s just more angry now, and if you shot his arm, his legs still work fine. I’ve seen people have their arms broken by a baton strike and not even notice. He’s still coming, and your only way to stop him getting to you and grappling with you for your gun now is to shoot him in the chest, exactly the type of serious injury we’re trying to avoid. If you shoot him in the leg, you may disable him, no matter how angry or insane he is, if his nerves aren’t connected to his muscles any more, he may fall over. But, as above, you may well sever his femoral artery and kill him, or permanently disable him, if you’re lucky. Again, what we’re trying to avoid.
Now a taser works by landing two barbs into the subject, which have to be a certain distance apart to work well. The weapon is designed to spread the barbs to achieve the distance, the problem being with shooting at someones leg, it is highly likely that only one of the barbs will make contact and because of the spread, the other will shoot harmlessly past. Assuming that you can even hit a smaller target such as the leg in the first place. There are cases where the weapon misses. If one of the barbs hit a hard part of the body the kneecap say, it may not penetrate far enough to stay in, same problem.
Sophie Khan is either genuinely ignorant on the subject, or she’s being dishonest because it pays the bills, I cannot decide which is worst. I would invite her if she’s reading, which I highly doubt, to actually attend a taser training course to have some practical idea of what she’s talking about, clearly she has none so far. I am sure in the interests of openness that the police would welcome the chance to show her.
Incidentally, I’ve posted a link to a YouTube video of the only occasion I’ve ever heard of where someone has been able to shoot a gun out of someone’s hand, the level of precision she thinks is possible in real world conditions. Please excuse the cheesy voiceover, but don’t let it distract you from the obvious – the suspect wasn’t moving, the weapon wasn’t moving, the weapon used by police was a scoped sniper rifle and the shooter had time to choose his position to get the best shot, and also make sure that there was nothing behind the target that might be hit as well. These are luxuries that will never be present in our scenario, whether we’re talking about tasers or real guns.
No-one is suggesting that using a taser on someone is risk-free. If there was a risk free way of detaining angry violent people, we’d do it all the time, and the world would be a better place. But there isn’t one. Taser comes pretty close however.
I would invite anyone who disagrees to consider what other alternatives are available and read the annual reports on deaths in police contact, and see how many of them involve more traditional means of restraint.
Yes, it may have been misused. But so can anything. Yes, the officers may have been excessive. I’m not blinded by my police service into thinking we’re all perfect, far from it. That is what the IPCC is there to examine and it’s fair to say there’s not much love lost between the IPCC and front line officers. But fair and open investigation is a necessity.
To argue for taking away such a vital tool because of individual mistakes, whether they happened here or not, forces officers to use more violent, more damaging methods of restraint, and will ultimately lead to more grieving and more autopsies. If it was a relative of mine having a mental breakdown and needing to be stopped for their safety and/or other people’s, I’d much rather they were tasered than anything else.