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Complex picture emerges around disproportionate use of Taser in some communities

13 December 2024

An independent report exploring the potential causes of racial and ethnic disparities in the use of Taser by police officers in England and Wales has been published.

police officer with taser

Analysis by researchers from Keele University, UCL, The University of Exeter and Staffordshire University suggests that a complex interplay of factors increases the likelihood of Taser being deployed against people from Black and other ethnic minority communities.

The research project was initiated by the National Police Chiefs’ Council and commissioned by the College of Policing, after their Officer and Staff Safety Review (OSSR) in 2019 found there was growing evidence to suggest that Tasers were being used disproportionately in society.

The researchers studied data from fifteen forces from across England and Wales and carried out more than 150 interviews with serving police officers, police scrutiny groups and members of the public. They also reviewed body worn camera footage, observed Taser training, and analysed routine police data to generate an evidence-based understanding of the potential drivers of ethnic and racial disproportionality in police use of Taser, and to inform future interventions aimed at addressing disparities.

Key findings from the research suggest:

  • There is a statistical relationship between ethnicity and increased use of Taser relative to other uses of force in some areas. This is mediated by other factors such as mental ill health, but police routine data collection needs to improve to properly understand these patterns;
  • The disproportionate use of Taser across different communities and populations stems from complex interactions between multiple factors, structures, and processes, both within and external to policing;
  • Policing takes place within a society fractured by inequality and structural racism in that Black and other ethnic minority populations are more likely than White people to live in areas of deprivation;
  • A combination of institutional priorities, policies, practices, and demands mean that policing is concentrated into areas of deprivation, which in turn disproportionately impacts on people from Black and ethnic minority backgrounds relative to the White population;
  • Given that police are more active in deprived neighbourhoods, this in turn makes Taser use in those areas more likely;
  • Taser has become institutionalised as an organisational level response to perceived threat and risk, which increases its use in situations that previously have been resolved in other ways, such as through dialogue;
  • Police officers count Taser among the least dangerous use of force options available to them, and risks associated with its use are under emphasized during training. Insufficient time is dedicated to discussions of ethnic disproportionality and de-escalation during Taser training, which risks creating a further push towards the use of the weapon;
  • In contrast, affected communities experience Taser as a dehumanising and potentially lethal weapon. They also emphasised the psychological harms and racialised traumas generated through use of the weapon;
  • Public scrutiny mechanisms designed to hold police officers to account lack adequate support.

The researchers say their findings highlight the need to urgently review multiple areas of Taser policy practice, training, and deployment, and point to broader issues around understandings of discrimination and racism, policing priorities and engagement with people experiencing mental health issues.

Professor Ben Bradford, Professor of Global City Policing and Director of the Centre for Global City Policing at UCL, said “This research presents a complex and nuanced picture. On the one hand, ethnic disproportionality in Taser use at the population level is the product of multiple, intersecting, causes. Some of these are far beyond the control of police. On the other hand, individual uses of Taser are clearly the responsibility of police, and these instances drive the disproportionality.

“A central issue as this research agenda moves forward will be exploring whether and how police can change policy and practice to alleviate ethnic disproportionality in Taser use. If this is not possible, then there must be fundamental questions about continued use of the weapon, at least in its current form.”

Professor Clifford Stott, Professor of Social Psychology at Keele University, said: “Our research highlights how complex the situation is and that the drivers of ethnic disproportionality in police use of Taser are not merely about individual officer decisions, but linked to the inequality and the structural racism of British society.

“Hopefully our research will open up a broader debate about the way in which the solutions lie not just within policing, but also in addressing some of the fundamental realities and problems of the society we all live in.”

Professor Abi Dymond, Associate Professor in Criminology at the University of Exeter, said: “This research highlights the urgent need to review multiple areas of Taser policy and practice, including guidance, the content and length of the training, deployment practices, accountability mechanisms and the institutionalisation of Taser.

“However, it is important this is not an insular or tokenistic process; as participants noted, this research should lead to real change and affected people and communities must be meaningfully involved in these discussions.”

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