On October 10, MA Criminology student Sally Browne was given the opportunity to represent Birmingham City University at a Taser Training event arranged by West Midlands Police.
Serving officers organised for scrutiny panel members, who hold the police to account regarding stop and search as well as use of force, to observe the learning and assessment police officers must fulfil in order to be given permission to carry a taser.
The event began when we were informed that this was day two of the officers’ training and that in their first day they were taught and trained on the theory and science behind the taser equipment, and day three would be their assessment period. The instructors explained that we would see them use the taser for the first time in a number of scenarios, they would be given constructive criticism and would be tested on the National Decision Model (NDM). This is because they are required to justify their use of the taser in every scenario in their subsequent reports, as taser usage is always referred to as a use of force.
Splitting into pairs, we each witnessed a group of three trainees tackle five scenarios, ranging from assailants charging at them with an axe and knife to a self-harmer holding a knife to his wrist and a dispute between neighbours. Each of the scenarios felt every realistic, frightening and sometimes downright sad. However, the officers conducted themselves with such professionalism, and very often compassion, especially when approaching the suicide scenario. The empathy and sensitivity shown during that demonstration was incredible and will be an element of the day that will always stay with me.
At the conclusion of each of the scenarios, the taser candidates were sat down and took part in a debrief, where they were praised and advised for future practice, for example mistakes of double discharge of the probes or factors for better officer safety. Additionally, they were asked to explain the sections of the NDM, legislation that they would need to use in their reports, and contingency plans had the scenarios been real.
Seeing the legislative and bureaucratic constraints that officers must endure in every aspect of their training and practice relating to the taser did one of three things. Firstly, it demonstrated that being a taser officer entails plenty of scrutiny from colleagues, senior officers and the public. Secondly, it showed that the premise of the NDM and legislation is fully implemented within the daily activities of police officers. And thirdly, it showed that the extent of training, skill and restraint needed in order to pass taser training is not a simple task, and therefore those who are carrying tasers are the most suitable candidates who take on a lot of responsibility in doing so.
The experience was truly invaluable for learning about modern police training, and has shaped my opinions of the taser. I truly believe the taser is useful and a beneficial piece of equipment for the police to possess. It may be regarded as a firearm, but the effects of the electrical charge are not life threatening in most cases. Surprising we were informed that the taser is the first piece of equipment that officers should turn to, next it is the PAVA spray, and then their batons are the last resort.
I learned that the rationale behind this is that while taser inflicts an electrical charge, it usually only temporarily incapacitates the suspect for a number of minutes, whereas PAVA can cause vision issues for far longer and batons pose a risk for fracturing and breaking bones when used. Instructors told us that when an officer places their hands on their taser or issues a warning, this is often enough to deescalate a situation without needing to use it, thus also reducing the need for far more damaging uses of force.
The protection for officers, the public and sometimes even the ‘tasered’ (in cases of self-harm) make the taser a vital piece of equipment for the police. Yes, there will be cases of improper use, but the training and scrutiny of this technology have shown me that rogue officers will either not be approved to carry such equipment or will have the privilege taken from them for continual flouting of the rules. This shows the importance of public support and safety to policing practices today.
The last part of the afternoon was most probably my favourite of the whole experience. We were taken away from the trainees and shown the taser unit itself, what each button did and how trainees are expected to handle them. We were able to inspect the taser and the probes up close, whilst watching a professional discharge the firearm. The technology itself is nothing but impressive; I was dumbfounded when I was told that when a taser is taken out of the holder by an officer (this is considered a discharge and they must again justify this later) their Body Worn Video device is sprung into action automatically, along with those of other officers within the vicinity (around an estimated 10 metres). This an excellent opportunity to provide a multi-dimensional view of an irate situation and can provide greater accountability for the police in terms of scrutiny panels like ours here in Birmingham City Centre.
The instructor went on to show the collective what officers would do when they wanted to ‘reenergise’ the discharged probes, this essentially means that assailants receive more electrical current if they continue to pose a risk or do not listen to police instructions, and this can be done as many times as needed, but again, must later be justified in reports.
Tasers hold two cartridges which limits each gun to two discharges, thus each use is precious, and the assessments require officers to make no mistakes. This is because a seemingly calm call out can escalate and an officer would be left with no means of protection if they accidently used both cartridges in one attempt to regain control of the situation and would then have to move to the PAVA spray, which is avoided as often as possible due to the issues raised above.
The probes themselves were most surprising element of the taser device, they are much sharper and longer that I anticipated. This poses risks for those being tasered, especially where the probe penetrates; however, the police rule is that if the face, genitals or neck areas are hit, an ambulance must be called or the individual needs to be taken straight to hospital, as the retrieval of the probes in such areas can cause damage and must be removed professionally.
The officers are trained to avoid such areas, but in a highly stressful situation with a moving target, mistakes can occur. These safety protocols of medical assistance were often referred to during the day for things like snapped probes, mention of heart conditions, injuries endured when tasered, the checking of equipment before activities or shifts, and method of arrest after the discharge of a taser. There has been criticism for the use of a taser on individuals with heart conditions, however like the instructor pointed out, if you have a dangerous person with weapons who poses a significant threat to the public, officers do not have time to enquire about the background in their health, likewise children and dangerous animals like dogs are still possible targets.
If the threat is there and the officer has grounds and justification for the use of the taser, it will be used regardless of age or being someone’s pet. There is an emphasis on the safety of the collective public and officers, rather than the legally acknowledged threat. The theme of safety was present throughout the day and can be seen in the protective glasses we were obligated to wear. They may have looked like the goggles you wore in the chemistry lab at school (not cute at all), but they gave me a view of what will be, by far, my favourite practical demonstration in my academic career.
Thank you to Jonathan Jackson for offering me the opportunity to attend this fantastic event. Thank you to Beth Davies-Smith for attending with me, BCU Criminology/Policing Department for the links and remarkable events you continue to deliver, the Faculty of Social Sciences for continuing to encourage and assist with career changing experiences, and, last but not least, the instructors, candidates and management within West Midlands Police who made this event possible. Best of luck with the rest of your careers and use of the taser.