The number of times tasers were deployed by Police Scotland to confront suspects has shot up from 13 to 80 per year between 2015-16 and 2018-19 – a sixfold rise.
Data obtained by The Ferret under freedom of information law shows that deployment of the device has been increasing each year, after a drop from 50 to 13 incidents between 2014-15 and 2015-16. Tasers were fired in a minority of occasions, however, with the device often drawn, aimed or not used at all.
Only armed officers were permitted to use tasers until June 2018, when 500 Specially Trained Officers (STOs) were equipped with the electrical weapon. In 2018-19 STOs fired tasers at suspects in 27 incidents, compared to 18 in the previous year.
Amnesty International Scotland warned that tasers are “potentially lethal weapons that should not be routinely deployed in policing.” But Police Scotland argued that the “mere presence” of tasers was often enough to de-escalate dangerous situations faced by officers.
The role of tasers as a deterrent was questioned by the Scottish Greens who said that monitoring was “vital” in light of a rise in the number of times they were fired. The Lib Dems called for measures to prevent “a slippery slope towards an enforcement model of policing.”
According to the Police Firearms Officers Association, Scottish officers are equipped with “the Taser X2 Defender, which is capable of incapacitating a target at a range of 15 feet with a 2000-volt shock.”
This measure followed the number of assaults on officers and of suspects armed with blades more than doubling between 2014-17 – from 438 to 969 incidents – according Police Scotland figures.
The Scottish Police Federation (SPF) told The Ferret that in a 2017 survey of Scottish officers nine out of 10 asked for tasers. The device is only used “to protect people and only then when other options have been tried”, an SPF spokesman said.
He added that due to the unpredictability of violent incidents, tasers need “to be available in all our communities all of the time”.
In 2018 Amnesty said that, following successful lobbying from itself and other groups, “all X2 models given to UK police would come equipped with an advanced battery option that cuts power to the device after five seconds.”
In the month following the introduction of the device amongst STOs in Scotland, tasers were fired during incidents in Jedburgh, Aberdeen and Carluke. In reviews by the Police Investigations & Review Commissioner (PIRC), taser use in all three incidents was deemed “necessary and proportionate” to immobilise suspects, who were “armed with weapons”.
PIRC later investigated seven incidents of STO taser usage in the year following their introduction. Only one usage was found to be not “reasonable or necessary”.
Amnesty International’s Scotland’s Programme Director, Naomi McAuliffe, warned that “the threat to safety is heightened” when tasers “are misused.”
She said: “While we welcome the commitment to ensuring Police Scotland has STOs, being trained in taser use should not result in the weapons being routinely deployed in policing.”
The Greens and Libs Dems both stressed the importance of the need for officers to hold equipment able to help protect themselves and the public, but raised fears about a normalisation of taser use.
The Scottish Greens’ justice spokesperson John Finnie MSP, a former police officer, said it was “important that robust risk assessments are carried out on an ongoing basis on the use of this equipment.”
He added that with only two years of data following taser deployment amongst STOs, it was “difficult to square the assertion that the ‘mere presence of the device is often enough to de-escalate the situation’”.
The Scottish Liberal Democrats’ justice spokesperson, Liam McArthur MSP, said it was “worrying that so many incidents are resulting in the use of tasers” and called for “rigorous scrutiny after each use”.
He added: “There need to be measures in place to ensure that there isn’t a slippery slope towards an enforcement model of policing.”
Police Scotland’s Assistant Chief Constable Mark Williams said that in light of an increase in violent incidents, the force has “trained more officers in the use of tasers to protect the public and our officers and it is therefore natural that the statistics reflect this”.
He added: “Let me be clear the majority of incidents we attend are resolved without the need to discharge tasers.”
The SPF emphasised that every use of tasers is investigated by PIRC, in addition to ongoing internal reviews.
“It is important for people to realise that without tasers, response officers can only protect themselves, or others by hitting assailants with a metal baton or shooting them,” a spokesman said.
The taser “has been proven to be a safer option” and “when used when necessary and proportionately, as Police Scotland does, is an essential aspect of safe policing”, he added.
In detail: Police Scotland Taser Use
Image thanks to Ninian Reid via Flickr. This story was published in tandem with the Sunday National.