Use of force isn't like the movies. It’s often messy, frightening and it can go sideways very quickly. I vividly remember my first arrest as a volunteer police officer, surrounded by jeering teenagers in a seaside amusement arcade wrestling on the ground with a completely non-compliant powerfully built kid. When we eventually got the cuffs on him, it turned out he was deaf and most of his resistance was because he couldn’t understand my repeated attempts to negotiate with him.
As head of security at HMP Wandsworth, I recall standing in the centre supervising an entirely correct and proportionate restraint and relocation of a prisoner. All the staff were white. The assailant, bowed double, handcuffed, bellowing with rage and distress, was black. He had just badly assaulted a colleague in a completely unprovoked attack. The optics do not always tell the story, nor it seems do the statistics.
This week the Guardian amended a story which suggested that Tasers – electrical energy stun guns – were being used by police to restrain children at an alarming rate. The context was a report produced by Unicef UK which called for the use of Tasers and spit hoods on youngsters to be banned.
The Guardian report said that the weapon was 'used' against under-18-year-olds 3,280 times in 2018-2019. But it later clarified that 'used' doesn't mean 'fired'. In fact, in the vast majority of cases, the weapon was pointed but not discharged. Across all age groups just drawing the weapon comprised 85 per cent of all usage. The Police Chief’s Council says in 2018/19 that in 35 million reported incidents officers attended, Taser was fired in 0.01 per cent of them.
Does Unicef care about that distinction? I'm not convinced. Most advocates for disarming the police will never have been on the receiving end of force, let alone have had the responsibility for using it lawfully in conditions where officers have sometimes fractions of a second to make tactical decisions with potentially life-altering consequences.
Far from these statistics being a cause for concern then, it is possible to look at them as an encouraging sign that the mere threat of Taser will bring potentially or actually violent incidents under control without any injury at all. Having some understanding of the practical reality of violence is not, of course a pre-requisite for having an opinion, nor should it be. But most commentary and too much research I see on use of force fully embraces the cult of vulnerability, as long as it’s the subject we are talking about, not the man or woman in uniform accountable for it.
If policing was merely dictated by optics for the consumption of those restless for the latest offence, we’d see a spike in white pensioners being taken to the ground in Woking. However, disobliging crime and ethnicity profiles put the police in places, times and situations and with people, including children, where spontaneous and extreme violence is a distinct possibility.
There has been a sharp increase in people arrested and dealt with for knife crime and the proportion of young people involved has risen steadily to about 20 per cent of the total. Being stabbed by a 17-year-old isn’t going to hurt any less because of his tender age. What's more, removing a tactical option that sits between a tin of synthetic hurty spray and an extendable baton with enough kinetic energy to put someone in a coma or worse doesn’t seem to make sense if we want violence brought under control safely within the law.
There is a pervading sense of unreality about much of the discourse in this area. We ask police officers to do a lot but to intuit the age and vulnerability of a person with the physical attributes of an adult and the impulsiveness of a toddler who is jumping on their head is a bit much. Similarly, the hand-wringing against such weapons entirely fails to realise that they are often used by officers to protect the target in situations, far too common, where a highly distressed suicidal person is harming themselves and must be incapacitated to save life. But again, these nuances don’t make for great copy.
Police and prison officers, in the front line against violence are suffering extraordinary rates of assault that have only been suppressed to some extent by the Covid-19 lockdown. The Police Chiefs council revealed that assaults where an officer was injured jumped by 26 per cent in the most recent statistics, a rate swollen by members of the public spitting on officers and claiming they had coronavirus.
The dramatic push for 20,000 extra police officers is being undermined by record numbers of cops resigning, in part because of the almost normalised violence they face on a daily basis. Police officers accept certain inherent risks when they put on the uniform. But they do not consent to be attacked with knives, firearms, faeces, contaminated blood, fists, boiling water or any other of the latest malign innovations being used by assailants of all age groups with less and less restraint.
In an ideal world, there would be no need for Taser to deal with adults or children. We would have outstanding parenting. Our preventative and early intervention strategies would successfully detect and derail delinquency. We would have mental health services that operated outside of office hours to manage severely ill people who pose a risk to themselves and others. We would have the precursor of the much-vaunted ‘public health’ approach to knife crime – tough enforcement – filling up our prisons. We would have young offender institutions and jails that weren’t feral dustbins and instead rehabilitated violent young men. But we aren’t in this utopia and we might never be there.
The state has a huge obligation to ensure that violence done in its name is strictly controlled and regulated. This is particularly true when it comes to the children and young people police encounter operationally who, in many cases, are already brutalised by emotional, physical, sexual abuse and desensitised to violence. We should expect the highest standards from them. In return they must expect to be protected. Unicef and journalists are important, but they aren’t the people you want on the other end of 999.