Work to assess ‘disproportionate’ use on black people goes on – UK Taser lead

·6-min read

The UK policing lead on Taser has “confidence” in the device and “robust” officer training but has acknowledged there is more to do to understand its “disproportionate” use against black people.

The latest Home Office data shows black people are eight times more likely to have a Taser used against them by police than a white person, after analysis of all 43 forces in England and Wales.

Use of Taser in the black community has been brought into sharp focus after a Birmingham Crown Court jury on Wednesday convicted 43-year-old West Mercia police constable Benjamin Monk of the manslaughter of former Aston Villa footballer Dalian Atkinson.

It is believed to be the first time in modern British criminal justice history a UK police officer has been found guilty of the manslaughter of a black man, according to Inquest, which supports the bereaved following state-related deaths.

According to the charity, no police officer has been found guilty of murder or manslaughter over a death in custody or following police contact in England and Wales since 1986.

A six-week trial was told Monk, 43, fired a Taser three times – including a single 33-second discharge – and left two bootlace prints on Atkinson’s forehead near his father’s home in Meadow Close, Telford, in August 2016.

On Thursday, jurors were discharged from reaching a verdict on Monk’s partner Mary Ellen Bettley-Smith, who was accused of assaulting Dalian Atkinson with a baton after he was tasered to the ground.

Dalian Atkinson in 1991
Dalian Atkinson in 1991 (PA)

Meanwhile, National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) lead for less lethal weapons, Lucy D’Orsi, said it was “absolutely right” that those frontline officers who deploy with Taser have it as part of their toolkit.

In January 2021, the NPCC and College of Policing launched the 12-month Independent Review into Disproportionate Effects of Use of Taser, chaired by Junior Smart.

Its role is to examine, evaluate and tackle the root causes of racial disproportionality in police use of Taser.

Speaking at the time, independent chairman Mr Smart said the organisation will offer “constructive criticism and challenge, with the aim of identifying where and what reforms are needed to make a genuine improvement”.

Taser was first authorised for use by UK forces in 2008, with the rollout completed five years later.

In 2017, the Government authorised for use the newer X2 Taser model, to replace the existing X26 single-shot device – used on Mr Atkinson – after the manufacturer ended production.

West Mercia Police constable Benjamin Monk leaving Birmingham Crown Court
West Mercia Police constable Benjamin Monk leaving Birmingham Crown Court after his conviction for manslaughter (Joe Giddens/PA)

Use of force statistics for England and Wales from the Home Office shows usage of the devices has increased each year, following Mr Atkinson’s death when, in 2016, it was 11,300 in total.

There were 16,900 uses of Taser in the year ending March 2018, rising to 23,500 in the 12 months to March 2019.

The latest data, for the year ending March 2020, showed a 37% increase on the previous period – to 32,100, in part explained by much greater take-up by forces.

Ms D’Orsi said Taser had gone “through a very rigorous assessment process” by scientists and medical experts before being authorised for UK use.

She added: “Nothing is ever completely risk-free but I am satisfied, in terms of the process that we go through for authorising Taser, that it’s pretty robust.

“In fact, I would say it is probably one of the most robust in the world.”

The charity Inquest said it is aware of at least 12 cases in England and Wales where a person has died following police contact in which a Taser was used.

Asked how risks around use of Taser are managed, Ms D’Orsi said not all frontline officers are equipped with the device, but those who are go through a “rigorous selection process” which not all officers pass.

She added that officers faced with a “threat of violence or extreme violence” are equipped with the training to decide with confidence “how and when they need to use Taser”.

Ms D’Orsi said: “We find, in 85%-plus of incidents where Taser is present, its mere presence tends to cause the violence to be significantly reduced.”

She added: “I think it is absolutely right UK policing has Taser as an option available.

“I am very confident in the training that is given to officers, and I am also very confident in the scientific evaluation… and the medical evaluation of Taser.”

But she stressed that the use of the device is “constantly under review”.

“I genuinely think Taser is a very divisive device,” she said.

“It really polarises public opinion and I am very conscious of that.

Taser lead for UK policing, Lucy D'Orsi
Chief Constable Lucy D’Orsi (Metropolitan Police/PA)

“But… I am confident in the use of Taser by policing in the UK and I think it has a place as a distance device to protect the public.”

She added: “No death, in my view, is ever acceptable, it’s something we are all working tirelessly to make sure that doesn’t happen – and particularly doesn’t happen with the use of Taser.

“Many communities feel there is a disproportionality in terms of the way Taser is used.

“We have currently just launched an independent review of disproportionality and Taser use.

“That group has commissioned some academic work which will start to look at some of the drivers which are there which perhaps lead to disproportionate use of Taser so we can understand that better and have conversations with those communities who feel the most affected.”

In court on Thursday, the case against the 31-year-old West Mercia probationary constable Bettley-Smith ended in a hung jury.

Jurors had deliberated for more than 21 hours before telling the trial judge they would be unable, even if given further time, to reach a verdict on a charge alleging she used unlawful force.

Bettley-Smith told her trial she used necessary force to defend herself and others, but prosecutors claimed she had exaggerated the threat posed by Atkinson to “help” Monk’s attempt to justify excessive force.

The Crown was granted seven days by Judge Melbourne Inman QC to decide whether to seek a retrial of Bettley-Smith on the assault charge.

She was given unconditional bail and the case against her was adjourned until Monday, when Monk is expected to face sentence.

If a retrial of Bettley-Smith does take place, the court heard, it is unlikely to take place until late next year.

After the trial, the ex-Premier League star’s family criticised the “completely unacceptable” delay in bringing his killer to justice, with the investigation and court case against Monk taking just under five years to conclude.

Monk himself was slammed by relatives of the former sportsman, who said they had been “sickened to hear” him try to minimise his use of a Taser and two kicks to his victim’s head.

Reacting to the verdict against Monk, the Assistant Chief Constable of West Mercia Police, Rachel Jones, said she was “sincerely sorry” and offered her “deep condolences” to Mr Atkinson’s family, who had “demonstrated great dignity and strength throughout”.

She added the force had “much to do” to “strengthen those bonds” with the communities it served.