Controversial watchdog report criticised from all quarters

A report released last week by one of the country’s two police ‘watchdogs’, extending to 127 pages, has drawn criticism from leading stakeholders, victims and their families, and leading police action lawyers, writes Neil Wilby.

The Independent Office for Police Conduct has made seventeen recommendations to the College of Policing, the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC), the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners, and the Home Office, under four main headings: Guidance and training; scrutiny and monitoring; data and research; community engagement and input.

The police service has been criticised for their deployment of Taser, with an official report finding black people are more likely to face prolonged use, and cases of the powerful electrical weapon being fired when it should not be.

A Taser works by sending electric pulses through the body, causing temporary incapacitation.

This study by the IOPC warned of a loss of legitimacy after analysis of 101 cases of Taser use it had previously investigated between 2015 and 2020, which the watchdog assessed to be the most serious cases.

They represent a fraction of uses of Taser by officers in that time, which numbered over 94,000, and the police watchdog said there were cases of officers using it well.

Prior to this report it was known that black people, who make up 4% of the population, faced greater Taser use, leading to claims of racial bias.

The IOPC said from the 101 cases it studied, it reached these conclusions:

“In the cases we reviewed, when black people were subject to Taser discharges, they were more likely to be tasered for prolonged periods.

“Twenty-nine per cent of white people involved in Taser discharges were subjected to continuous discharges of more than five seconds, whereas the figure was 60% for Black people.

“In the majority of cases involving either allegations of discrimination or common stereotypes and assumptions, there was evidence that the individual concerned had mental health concerns or a learning disability.

“This supports findings by others that the intersectionality of race and mental health can increase the risk of higher levels of use of force.”

The IOPC said in one case a black 17-year-old male, who was an inpatient at a mental health centre was shot with the electrical weapon three times, struck with a baton more than 20 times and subjected to incapacitant spray and restraint.

They added that in almost a third of cases studied, chances may have been missed to de-escalate the situation. One-quarter of cases saw Taser used for compliance, despite official guidance to officers that it should not be used in this way.

The police watchdog go on to say that 26 investigations, out of 101, led to a finding that an officer should face a disciplinary case or be considered for criminal prosecution.

In the last five years, four inquests found Taser use contributed to, or were relevant in a combination of factors that led to a person’s death.

In June one officer, PC Benjamin Monk, was convicted of the manslaughter of the former top tier football star Dalian Atkinson in Telford, Shropshire. Monk used Taser for 33 seconds, but also kicked Atkinson twice in the head. The victim had underlying health issues, and on the night he clashed with police was facing a mental health crisis that led him to utter threats. Dalian is best remembered for a magnificent solo goal that he scored for Aston Villa against Wimbledon in October, 1992. It won the Goal of the Season award for the 1992/93, the first of the Premier League era.

The IOPC said mental health was a common feature in its cases: “In incidents where mental health was a factor, people were more likely to be subjected to multiple and prolonged discharges than the overall sample.”

It added: “We found examples of good practice where officers recognised signs that an individual may have been experiencing acute behavioural disturbance and responded in line with policy and guidance.”

The IOPC also said in a third of cases it reviewed officers made offensive comments when using Taser, but accepts this can happen during stressful situations:

“This included officers swearing at, and making derogatory comments to, the individuals, and making unprofessional remarks to them and their families.”

IOPC director general Michael Lockwood, has insisted reforms are necessary: “Ultimately, policing has to change and be more responsive to community concern or risk losing legitimacy in the eyes of the public.”

“In particular, people from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds deserve a clear and transparent answer from police on why such disproportionality still exists – failure to address this risks undermining the legitimacy of policing.”

He concludes: “Ultimately, policing has to change and be more responsive to community concern or risk losing legitimacy in the eyes of the public.”

“In particular, people from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds deserve a clear and transparent answer from police on why such disproportionality still exists – failure to address this risks undermining the legitimacy of policing.”

Lucy D’Orsi, National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for Conducted Energy Devices (CEDs) and less lethal weapons, accused the report of ignoring the realities of policing: “Unfortunately, this report by the IOPC is vague, lacks detail, does not have a substantive evidence base and regrettably ignores extensive pieces of work that are already well under way and, indeed, other areas where improvement could be made.

“Only 101 Taser uses over a five-year period were reviewed and these were all ones that had been investigated by the IOPC. It is concerning that this only represents 0.1% of all Taser uses in the same period, which totals 94,045.”

Lisa Renee Cole, whose brother Marc Cole died following use of Taser, said: “This report has identified key findings relating to the police misuse of Tasers that led to the deaths of Marc Cole, Adrian McDonald and Darren Cumberbatch. The IOPC have gravely failed our families by not applying these findings to the investigations into our loved ones’ deaths. Our families urge the IOPC to now look at the key finding patterns in all the cases listed in the deaths and injuries section of the report and to urgently review and robustly reinvestigate all these cases.”

Deborah Coles, Director of INQUEST, said: “This review is welcome but the recommendations do not go far enough to create the systemic change needed. Tasers are highly dangerous weapons which have resulted in serious injuries, harm, and deaths. They are increasingly used as a first not last resort.

“The disproportionate and inappropriate use of Taser against Black people, people with mental ill health, learning disabilities and Autism, and children underscores longstanding concerns about racism and discrimination in policing.

“We don’t just need more scrutiny, community oversight, or training or guidance. We need the IOPC, police chiefs and oversight bodies to hold police officers to account when they abuse their powers and to confront the reality presented by this evidence. We need strong action: stop the further rollout of Tasers to more officers now.

Responding to the publication of the report, Oliver Feeley-Sprague, Amnesty International UK’s policing expert and a member of the independent advisory group to the NPCC lead on Tasers, said:

“This should be a wake-up call to the police and the Home Office over the use – and misuse – of these potentially lethal weapons

“The police have a disturbing track record of disproportionately using Tasers against Black people and those in mental distress.

“In some circumstances, Tasers can be effective if used by well-trained officers to prevent loss of life or serious injury – but they’re open to misuse and over-use.

“Tasers are potentially lethal weapons, linked to hundreds of deaths in the USA and a growing number in Britain, and we’ve always said that UK police forces needed to restrict their use to highly-trained specialist officers.

“For years we’ve been calling for a formal review of the official guidance around all aspects of the police’s use of Tasers, and this report needs to form part of wider reforms over Taser use.

“Tasers should be used only as a last resort when all other de-escalation techniques have failed, but the police are using Tasers more often and in more questionable circumstances.

“We need concrete steps to eradicate racist police use of Tasers and to prevent their misuse against vulnerable groups such as children or those with mental health issues.

“There needs to be comprehensive and ongoing training, better guidelines over Taser use, and greater transparency and record-keeping over the circumstances in which these powerful weapons are being deployed on our streets.”

Earlier this year, Amnesty said the multiple and sustained Taser shocks used by a police officer against former professional footballer Dalian Atkinson ahead of his death in 2016 were part of a “toxic cocktail of abusive and discriminatory policing”. In June, a jury at Birmingham Crown Court found that West Mercia Police officer PC Benjamin Monk was guilty of manslaughter in relation to Atkinson’s death. Atkinson, a 48-year-old Black man, was tasered for 33 seconds and also kicked in the head twice by the police officer as he lay on the ground.

“Ultimately to prevent further deaths and harm, we must look beyond policing and redirect resources into community, health, welfare and specialist services.”

Iain Gould, of DPP Law, one of the leading police action solicitors in the country says pointedly:

“A recent Sky News investigation into police taser discharge disturbingly revealed that the age range of the victims, over the last 3 years, is from as low as 10 years old to as high as 87.

“The bare facts of the data alone indicate that police officers are becoming more ‘trigger happy’ with taser weapons – resorting to them as a short cut to resolving a conflict situation, without properly considering or exhausting less violent means of resolution – and, indeed, this is borne out by my own professional experience of such cases.

“Whilst in response to media attention upon this issue, police forces often provide a roster of examples of taser use which highlight the most violent situations their officers are confronted with – generally those involving aggressive adult individuals armed with bladed weapons – the fact is that a great many taser incidents involve entirely unarmed individuals.

“For example, I have a current case in which a man, having been woken by a police welfare visit to his home was, during the course of an unlawful arrest, tasered in the chest whilst in a state of undress and doing nothing more than verbally protesting.  Body camera footage reveals that the taser-wielding Officer gave my client an instruction to place his hands behind his back, and then when my client failed to immediately comply, tasered him (literally) within 2 seconds.

“I am, therefore, left with real concern that officers resort far too frequently to their taser guns – whilst I am not disputing that there are certain incidents where taser use is entirely appropriate in the interests, and safety, of all concerned.  Such incidents which threaten extreme violence towards police officers or members of the public however, can certainly not have increased by 65% over the last 3 years (manifestly, that is not true) which suggests not that there is a rising tide of violence, but rather that Taser weapons are being deployed by the police prematurely, and inappropriately, in ever more low-level incidents and against increasingly younger/vulnerable people.

“Indeed, I happen to represent one of the youngest victims of police tasering whose case is highlighted in the Sky report – the 10 year old girl tasered by the Metropolitan Police in January of this year.

“In the interest of confidentiality, I shall simply refer to my client by the pseudonym of ‘Amy’.

On the account of Amy’s father, Amy was not warned before the taser was fired at her, and she was not moving towards the police officers when it was fired.  Following the incident she required treatment in Kings College Hospital, London.  A formal complaint has been filed and is presently ongoing.

“I am, frankly, flabbergasted by the suggestion that police officers deemed it necessary to taser a 10-year- old girl, even if she was ‘armed with garden shears’ and I am pleased that the investigation currently being conducted by the IOPC has assessed that there is an indication that the officer who tasered Amy has committed a criminal offence and behaved in a manner which would justify the bringing of disciplinary proceedings due to an indication of excessive use of force.  This officer is now under investigation for a criminal assault upon Amy (by use of his taser), and also on suspicion of gross professional misconduct.

“I strongly echo the  warning of Amnesty International that there is evidence of  “enormous mission creep” in regards to police taser use in the UK. That is to say it is becoming normalised as a police response for any failure to comply with their authority, and officers are reaching for these weapons rather than attempting to de-escalate a situation, or considering other uses of force that do not involve discharging a firearm which launches barbs designed to penetrate the skin, delivers a horrendous (although generally short-lived) burst of pain, which poses a real risk of cardiac arrhythmia (particularly in younger and more vulnerable individuals) and which – even when not fired – can leave long-term mental scars which long outlast the physical effects.

“The IOPC investigation into Amy’s case presently continues, but regardless of its findings I will remain committed to doing what I can to reverse what might well be described as a rising epidemic of Police taser violence”.

Sophie Khan, a well known solicitor and higher court advocate, who specialises in cases involving Taser-related injuries, said: “The use of less-lethal weaponry is a last resort and should not be used on children and on the elderly, whom by their nature are vulnerable.

“The police forces need to recognise that Tasers are not the answer to each and every police interaction.”

Of those cases examined by the IOPC, 71 per cent of subjects were white, 22 per cent were black, less than four per cent were Asian and less than two per cent of mixed ethnicity. The average age of a subject was 35, but six people were aged under 18 at the time of the incident.

Screenshot 2021-09-01 at 08.23.53

The number of incidents where police officers discharged Tasers in England and Wales rose by nearly a quarter last year. Home Office data shows there were 3,300 incidents recorded in 2019/20 – up 22% on the previous year (2,700 incidents) and 65% higher than 2017/18 (2,000 incidents).

West Yorkshire Police, whose training video features earlier in this piece were one of a handful of forces selected to operate the taser on an experimental basis in 2005. It all went terribly wrong on its very first deployment:

Armed police were called to the bus depot in the upmarket suburb of Headingley where a man, Nicholas Gaubert, was mistakenly treated as a potential security threat when he was, in fact, in a hypoglycaemic state. When he failed to respond to their challenges he was shot twice with the Taser.

Mr Gaubert said that, as this was happening, another officer was pointing a real gun at his head. He was restrained and eventually came round in the police van.

He said it was only then that the officers realised it was a medical emergency, despite him wearing a medical tag round his neck to warn of his condition, and took him to hospital.

Mr Gaubert said he was told the police believed he looked “Egyptian”.

His solicitor, Ifti Manzoor, of Irwin Mitchell in Sheffield, said the incident had clear parallels with the shooting of Jean-Paul Menezes at Stockwell tube station, which had occurred just one week before, and showed there was evidence of a breakdown in communication between the police on the ground and their commanders.

Mr Gaubert said: “When I heard about that Brazilian man in London I just thought, ‘oh no, that could have been me’.”

Mr Manzoor added: “The evidence is there was an order that officers be deployed and contain the scene. This direct order seems to have been ignored.

“I really appreciate that under the circumstances and at that time the police had an enormously difficult job. But Mr Gaubert was alone in a bus depot. He is completely traumatised by this and living with it every day.”

West Yorkshire Police Federation Chairman Brian Booth says: “The Independent Office for Police Conduct struggles to maintain any credibility with the rank and file officer – and this report will do very little to reverse the situation.”
The Taser report has been slated by a uniformed voice in policing, with the Police Federation of England and Wales dismissing the review as “statistically insignificant”.
They say: “This report makes recommendations on 101 IOPC investigations into Taser use in a five-year timescale. However, there were almost 100,000 recorded Taser usages in this period, so it is statistically insignificant.”
Brian said: “Failing to consult with Taser practitioners has left a blatant gaping hole in the paper. Concentrating purely on incidents that had already been identified as needing extra scrutiny, but failing to recognise the vast majority of Taser deployment success.
“There are 17 recommendations and the vast majority of these being of standard practice already within West Yorkshire. The report does not take into account the unpredictable nature of policing situations and the fact that officers may not have all the facts in that split second prior to making a decision to use force.
“This is especially the case when we look at vulnerable adults or children.
“A vulnerable adult can be an individual suffering from a mental illness and presenting a substantial threat to the public, a child includes anybody up to the age of 18.
“Both these groups can (but not always) pose a significant threat to my colleagues and especially when weapons are involved.
“A reliable report would have widely consulted with my colleagues and taken into account the positive outcomes that Taser has brought to policing.”

No article of this nature would, of course, be complete without reference to Greater Manchester Police and a Taser tragedy involving that troubled police force.

Jordon Begley, 23, died after GMP officers Tasered and restrained him in 2013.

Eleven officers were despatched to Mr Begley’s home in July 2013 after his mother called 999 reporting he had a knife during a row with neighbours.

He was shot with the 50,000 volt Taser gun from a distance of just 28 inches (70cm) and was hit with “distraction strikes” while being restrained and handcuffed by three armed officers, a 2015 inquest heard.

The inquest jury found that Jordon died partly as a result of being “inappropriately and unreasonably” tasered and restrained by police officers.

They delivered a narrative verdict after a five-week hearing at Manchester Civil Courts of Justice.

While the initial Taser shock did not cause his heart to stop, the jury concluded that the use of the Taser and the restraint “more than materially contributed” to a “package” of stressful factors leading to Mr Begley’s cardiac arrest.

Another factor, they concluded, was Mr Begley’s intoxication at the time of the incident and confrontation with police.

In damning conclusions, the jury said the officer who pulled the Taser trigger, PC Terence Donnelly, “inappropriately and unreasonably” used the stun gun for longer than was necessary.

The jury said PC Donnelly pulled the trigger for eight seconds which was “not reasonable in the circumstances”.

After Mr Begley struggled and was restrained by armed police they were “more concerned with their own welfare than his,” they added.

The 23-year-old factory worker offered “minimal resistance” and there was “no need” for one officer to punch him a second time in a “distraction strike” as they handcuffed him, the inquest heard.

The ruling concluded he was also left too long face down with his hands cuffed behind his back.

Following the verdict, Greater Manchester Police (GMP) “restricted” the operational duties of the officers involved in the case.

The original report by the police watchdog, then known as the IPCC, found no individual officer had a case to answer.

But the report findings were quashed by the High Court in 2016, at the request of the watchdog, after it was found to be inconsistent with evidence given a subsequent inquest and a reinvestigation was launched (read more here).

A reinvestigation into his death by the IOPC found one former officer may have breached standards.

Mr Begley’s mother Doroty said in 2018, the second probe was “a whitewash” and “five years later, I’m still fighting for him”.

Of the six GMP officers under investigation, one left the force after the inquest and five had restrictions on their duties lifted.

Ms Begley said: “I’ve never been this angry in my life… where do I go from here? They kept us in the dark hoping that it will go away – it’s not going to go away”.

She said she was told five of the officers under investigation “declined to be re-interviewed” by the IOPC and added “that’s really wrong”.

As a result she has no trust in the IOPC which has “let me down twice now”. Joining virtually every other bereaved family that has ever come into contact with the police watchdog since its formation in 2004. Because its reputation became so tarnished, and public confidence in it was so low, not least because of the Jordon Begley debacle, it was forced to change its name from the IPCC to the IOPC in January, 2018.

By contrast, GMP Federation chairman Stuart Berry welcomed the outcome of the investigation but criticised the length of time it had taken.

Without a trace of self-awareness, or irony, given the lack of co-operation of his own Members, he said: “The IOPC has to appreciate the impact these ridiculously long investigations have on police officers, their families and the communities we serve”.

There was neither condolence, nor it seems any sympathy for what Dot Begley and her family has been put through.

Greater Manchester Police, the worst police force in the country by almost any measure, was placed in ‘Special Measures’ by the Home Office in December last year. A more recent report expressed serious concerns over racism still, apparently, embedded in the force.

The IOPC continues to disappoint at every level and its effectiveness, particularly investigating death and serious injury, and its independence from the police, and in particular the Police Federation, who appear to have the watchdog on a tight leash, is challenged consistently by complainants, bereaved families, stakeholders and justice campaigners.

UPDATE: Since this article was first published on 30th August, 2021 it has emerged that a Greater Manchester Police officer, Phillip Smith (aged 47), has admitted common assault at Preston Crown Court after repeatedly using a Taser on a man who was handcuffed

He used the Taser five times after being called to a property in Dukinfield, Tameside, in June 2018 but an IOPC investigation later found there was no justification for its use on the last three occasions. A group of officers had been called there due to concerns for the welfare of a 29-year-old man.

Smith was handed an 18-month conditional discharge by the judge and ordered to pay £250 in compensation.

Amanda Rowe, Independent Office for Police Conduct regional director, said Smith then “repeatedly Tasered a man at a time when he posed no threat to him or his colleagues”.

“While the man was Tasered five times, the evidence indicated there was no justification for its use on the last three occasions during which time the man had already been restrained and was handcuffed,” she added.

“At that point his use of Taser was gratuitous and amounted to an assault in the eyes of the law.

“It is clear and the judge acknowledged that PC Smith lost his temper.”

Smith is now subject to gross misconduct disciplinary proceedings, which could result in his dismissal.

A GMP spokesman, in a masterclass of downplay and understatement, said it “understands that any officer who is sentenced for a criminal offence will no doubt cause concern in the community”.

“The matter has been referred back to our Professional Standards Branch who will now deal with the matter according to Police Regulations,” he added.

Page last updated: Tuesday 5th September, 2021 at 0810 hours

Corrections: Please let me know if there is a mistake in this article. I will endeavour to correct it as soon as possible.

Picture credit:  Twitter. Film credit: West Yorkshire Police

Right of reply: If you are mentioned in this article and disagree with it, please let me have your comments. Provided your response is not defamatory it will be added to the article.

© Neil Wilby 2015-2021. Unauthorised use, or reproduction, of the material contained in this article, without permission from the author, is strictly prohibited. Extracts from, and links to, the article (or blog) may be used, provided that credit is given to Neil Wilby Media, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Published by Neil Wilby

Former Johnston Press area managing director. Justice campaigner. Freelance investigative journalist.

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