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Police officers who carry Tasers are more likely to use force and be attacked

Members of specialist Garda units are trained in the use of Tasers but they’re not widely used here.

File photo of a Taser
File photo of a Taser
Image: Shutterstock/bibiphoto

A NEW STUDY has found that London police officers visibly armed with electroshock Taser weapons are more likely to be assaulted, and used force 48% more often, than those on unarmed shifts.

However, while use of force can include everything from restraint and handcuffing to CS spray (found in tear gas), the Tasers themselves were only fired twice during the year-long study period.

Criminologists from the University of Cambridge say the findings suggest that Tasers can trigger the ‘weapons effect’: a psychological phenomenon in which sight of a weapon increases aggressive behaviour.

While the weapons effect has been repeatedly demonstrated in simulated conditions over the last 40 years, this is one of the largest studies to show it “in the field” and the first to reveal the effect in law enforcement.

The Cambridge researchers say their findings, published in the journal Criminal Justice and Behaviour, may well apply to policing situations in which other forms of weaponry – including the lethal variety – are involved.

“We found that officers are more likely to be assaulted when carrying electroshock weaponry, and more likely to apply force,” lead researcher Dr Barak Ariel from Cambridge’s Institute of Criminology said.

“It is well established that the visual cue of a weapon can stimulate aggression … There was no increase in injury of suspects or complaints, suggesting it was not the police instigating hostilities.

“The presence of Tasers appears to provoke a pattern where suspects become more aggressive toward officers, who in turn respond more forcefully,” he said.

The use of Tasers among An Garda Síochána is rare but members of specialist units such as the Emergency Response Unit and the Armed Support Unit (ASU) are trained in their use.

The number of gardaí who attended firearms training (which includes Taser training) in recent years is as follows:

  • 2016: 7,851
  • 2017: 10,555
  • 2018: 6,891 (as of 31 August)

The jump in 2017 was as a result of an increase in the size of the ASU. Each member attends more than one training course each year.

The Garda Representative Association has previously called for more gardaí to be armed with Tasers. Writing in TheJournal.ie, the organisation’s Communications Director John O’Keeffe said the move is necessary to protect gardaí’s safety. 

“It is believed that over 6,000 gardaí may have been injured in the line of duty in over a decade – and these are the ones we know of, as many assaults go unreported … 

“[Tasers] reduce risk of injury to police officers and members of the public. Period.

“We know they work – that is why certain sections within the force, such as the Armed Support Units and the Emergency Response Unit, have already been issued with them. Now it is time to ensure that all our officers are safe,” he wrote. 

Extended deployment

The City of London Police force is responsible for policing the ‘Square Mile’ business district in the centre of London. It also holds national responsibility for Economic Crime and prioritises counter-terrorism, violent crime and public order due to its central location.

The force was the first in England and Wales to test “extended deployment” of Tasers – described as “conducted energy devices” in UK policing – to frontline officers. During the rollout, police chiefs allowed Ariel and colleagues to conduct a major experiment.

Between June 2016 and June 2017 the researchers randomly allocated 400 frontline shifts a Taser-carrying officer and compared the results to an equal number of unarmed shifts over the same period. A total of 5,981 incidents occurred during the study.

Use of force by police carrying Tasers was 48% higher than the officers on unarmed shifts. In what researchers call a “contagion effect”, even those unarmed officers accompanying Taser carriers on ‘treatment’ shifts used force 19% more often than those on Taser-free ‘control’ shifts.

Six physical assaults against police were recorded during shifts with Taser-carrying officers, compared to just three on the unarmed ‘control’ shifts. While the numbers are small, researchers note that assaults against officers are rare and argue that this doubling is significant.

Despite the increased hostility uncovered by the study, actual use of electroshock weapons was minimal over the study period, with just nine “deholsterings” – only two of which resulted in electric shocks applied to a suspect.

“The City of London police rarely discharged Tasers during the study. Yet the very presence of the weapon led to increased hostility between the police and public,” Ariel stated.

Weapons effect 

The weapons effect was first shown by psychologist Leonard Berkowitz in 1967, in a laboratory experiment involving the administering of electric shocks in the presence of a rifle – an experiment that Ariel points out has been replicated 78 times.

“For many, a weapon is a deterrence. However, some individuals interpret the sight of a weapon as an aggressive cue – a threat that creates a hostile environment,” he said.

The response is consequently a ‘fight or flight’ dilemma that can result in a behavioural manifestation of aggression and assault. This is what we think we are seeing in our Taser experiment.

“It would not be surprising to find that serious or violent offenders fit this criteria, especially young males – the very type of suspect that is regularly in direct contact with frontline police.”

Half a million police officers in the United States regularly carry Tasers, and electroshock weapons are now becoming part of frontline policing across the UK.

The study authors said concealing the Tasers may bypass the weapons effect. “The relatively inexpensive policy change of keeping Tasers hidden from sight should not limit efficacy, but could reduce the weapons effect we see in the study,” Ariel said.

This conclusion could be generalised to all types of police armoury, including the lethal firearms carried by police officers. If the presence of weapons can lead to aggression by suspects, so its concealment should be able to reduce aggression and increase officer safety.

Study co-author Chief Superintendent David Lawes, from the City of London Police, added: “Following the findings of the study, we are exploring whether a simple holster change or weapon position move will nullify the weapons effect issue shown in the experiment. We have also updated our training package for officers carrying Tasers to make them aware of the findings.”

The use of Tasers have been a proportionate and sensible introduction to policing against a backdrop of unsophisticated terror attacks and an increase in violent crime across London.

“The City of London Police seeks to ensure that any major changes to policy are supported by an evidence base and we wanted to be confident that an extension of Taser deployments to our frontline responders was the right thing to do for both our officers and the public they serve.

“A number of other forces are interested in replicating the study to add to the evidence base and see whether the experiment produces the same results outside of London.”

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Órla Ryan

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