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Bristol police Taser their own community relations adviser, raising major concerns about Taser use

Last month, police in Bristol wrongly Tasered a race relations adviser who had worked to improve links between the police force and the local African Caribbean community. The incident raises serious and important questions about how Tasers are being used by police, whether current levels of training are adequate and the risks of arming more police officers with Tasers.

63-year-old Judah Adunbi was Tasered outside his home when officers apparently mistook him for a wanted man. The Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) launched an investigation and this week confirmed that it had served the officers involved with gross misconduct notices.

The Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE), s 117 (b), states, in respect of reasonable force, ‘…the officer may use reasonable force, if necessary, in the exercise of the power’. However, on 19 January 2017, at 17:11 the police in Bristol abused this power, by unnecessarily using excessive force, after mistaking Mr Adunbi, for a wanted man. Video footage of the event clearly shows how the police came to grossly escalate the use of force, in an attempt to apprehend him outside his home in Easton, Bristol.

In the preceding events, the female officer and Mr Adunbi reportedly had the following exchange;

Female officer;stay still
Mr Adunbi;my hands are here’
Female officer;you have keys in your hands
Mr Adunbi;I am going into my house
Neighbour videoing events;he is going into his home that is his house there, he’s got keys for it

As Mr Adunbi attempted to enter his home, the two officers in attendance dragged him back. Then, when he was standing approximately a metre from the officers, the female officer, without warning, drew and fired Taser darts into Mr Adunbi’s face. Only after initial contact was made did she say;

Taser, Taser, Taser, alright, you’ve been Tasered okay
Neighbour;‘that is totally unnecessary, totally uncalled for and unnecessary, completely’
Male officer responded;he was trying to fight us’
Neighbour; ‘he wasn’t trying to fight, he was trying to get into his house actually, and you started it, you made physical contact first’.
Neighbour videoing events;he is going into his home that is his house there, he’s got keys for it

While on the floor, Mr Adunbi put his wallet next to the female officer and pointed, telling the officers repeatedly, there is my ID. But the officers ignored this plea, and persisted to force handcuffs onto him; at the time he had Taser wires stuck in his lip. Mr Adunbi was taken to hospital initially, before the police took him to Patchway Station where he was detained for ten hours, and then released without charge.

After the event, Mr Adunbi, who has worked with the police to help build relations between them and the local African Caribbean community, said, ‘It’s a little distasteful in my mouth. To know that one of the founder members of the independent advisory group, which was created some years ago in order to improve the relationship between the Afro-Caribbean community and the constabulary, and to be treated like this, it’s difficult.”

What the guidance states

The IPCC review of Taser complaints and incidents 2004-2013, published in 2014, recorded that police Taser use increased 232% between 2009 and 2013. The IPCC, aware of the potential danger of police over reliance on Tasers when trying to gain compliance, strongly recommends that officers receive proper training. However, the video evidence of the Bristol incident shows that either inadequate training procedures are in place, and/or, the officers on this occasion ignored the guidance. Avon and Somerset Constabulary guidance stresses that the weapon should be discharged proportionately, ‘A decision to use a Taser against someone is never taken lightly. Before being used other options are considered. Often simply drawing the Taser or placing a red dot to indicate it may be used, is enough to subdue a violent person without having to fire the weapon’.

Mr Adunbi was not violent towards the officers present, and yet the female officer chose to use excessive and disproportionate force, without warning or indication that her Taser would be used. Despite the damning evidence, in response to the incident, the chair of Bristol’s Police Federation defended the officers involved, saying they did ‘exactly what the public expected.’ To defend the indefensible in this manner is extremely concerning and only likely to further damage the confidence of the local African Caribbean community in that police force, and public confidence in the police more widely. One can only hope that the IPCC takes more robust action to hold these officers to account, sending out a public message that such actions are not acceptable.

More to the story

The incident raised significant concerns locally about the discriminatory use of taser on black people. Bristol Mayor Melvin Rees, attended an emergency meeting in St Pauls, Bristol, on the 28th January 2017, to address such concerns. During the meeting, he stated in terms that the police treatment of Mr Adunbi showed a racial bias which should not go unacknowledged, ‘don’t deny the race element in the name of seeking cheap solidarity, that really undermines it, it rubs out the history of race in this country’. While, Mr Adunbi has asked for a constructive approach in response to this situation, “We need to identify weakness that is within the constabulary. We can come up with a positive way to move forward. We need to address this matter. We cannot take the time and become complacent to let this negative policing remain”.

What is shocking is that the treatment Mr Adunbi received seems, rather than an exceptionally unfortunate one off incident, to be part of a wider issue locally with the disproportionate use of taser on black people. According to the 2011 census, Bristol’s black communities make up just 6% of the population. Yet, data collected by Avon and Somerset Constabulary shows that in the first half of 2016, from 1 January to 30 June, 17% of people the police had either drawn, aimed, fired, or red dotted a Taser against were black. The really alarming assertion that can be drawn from the data is, if the police used a Taser against a black person in Bristol during that period, there was a 41% chance that they would fire it, as opposed to a 12% chance that they would fire it against a non-black person. This raises questions about the modus operandi of the police and why officers are so much more likely to draw and discharge their Taser against black suspects.

And the problem does not stop with Bristol; the disproportionate use of taser on black people is a national issue, as recently pointed out by Sara Ogilvie, at Liberty,The routine use of Tasers in everyday policing is bad enough. But the fact that black people are three times more likely to be Tasered than white people shows that urgent change is needed’.

Further ethical question

The Association of Police Officers (ACPO) blog on Tasers, states, ‘The situation is further complicated by the need to avoid sensitive areas of the body, such as the eyes, face, neck and groin.’ Keeping in mind that Mr Abunbi was shot in the face, before he fell to the ground. ACPO state, ‘Deaths from head injury, as a result of discharge-induced falls have been documented in other countries.’ While, DOMILL [i.e. the Sub-Committee on the Medical Implications of Less lethal weapons] state ‘the risk of death or serious injury from the use of M26 and X26 Tasers within ACPO Guidance and Policy is very low’, although low, the risk of serious injury is acknowledged, and it is not zero.

A jury in July 2015, during the inquest into the death of 23-year-old Jordon Begley, summarised that the use of a Taser more than materially contributed to his death. Mr Begley went into cardiac arrest after being Tasered by the police. Indeed, pressure groups have repeatedly called for an urgent Parliamentary Inquiry into the police use of Tasers. In 2016, Oliver Sprague, UK Arms Programme Director for Amnesty International, said,Following a series of tragic incidents, serious questions must now be asked. We need a thorough investigation to determine whether these weapons are being used properly and responsibly’.

The incident on 19 January raises multiple questions regarding police conduct on the day but also about police use of Tasers more generally. When is it reasonable to use and fire a Taser? How are officers trained and how do they become qualified to use them and is that training sufficient given the potential for serious injury and even death? There are clear ethical implications of equipping officers with Tasers and I believe this latest incident strengthens the need for an urgent inquiry into the use of Tasers by police.; this must be a priority before any consideration is given to the extension of the use of Taser.