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Police prefer to carry tasers – but would that make anyone safer?

A recent survey of 11,000 London police officers revealed that 75% thought they should be permitted to carry tasers while on duty. By comparison, only 26% asked for the routine carriage of firearms, while 12% specifically rejected this option. However, just over half of the respondents said they would carry guns if ordered to do so.

Currently, only specially trained Authorised Firearms Officers (AFOs) are allowed to carry firearms and tasers, making up just 4.4% of officers on the force. In the wake of the 2015 Paris attacks, an additional 600 armed Counter Terrorism Firearms Officers were deployed around key locations in London. But these “additional officers” were barely enough to restore the number of AFOs to the levels seen seven years ago.

The survey, conducted by the Metropolitan Police Federation, is the latest in a series of initiatives intended to secure more protective equipment for officers, amid concerns about the rates of assaults on police. The Home Office estimates that there were around 23,000 assaults on officers in England and Wales during 2015-16, with some 8,000 of these resulting in injuries.

The poll was announced in the wake of a couple of important developments: an apparent upward spike in police shootings during 2015-16, with five fatal police shootings in nine months, as well as a controversial “hard stop” shooting on the M62 in January. Despite a decade-long fall in serious violence and weapon-related crime, both spiked sharply upwards in London during 2015-16.

And yet, outside of London, police attitudes toward carrying arms have remained fairly consistent over the years. Two national polls conducted in the mid-1990s found that the majority of police officers were opposed to routine arming, except in London and Manchester – arguably the cities where police officers were more likely to encounter armed offenders. Another national poll in 2006 echoed the earlier results, with 77% of responding officers rejecting the routine arming of frontline officers. By then, less lethal weapon options such as tasers had entered the picture.

Public support

According to polls by ITV, the public are more supportive of routine police arming than the officers themselves – though readers are typically polled in the wake of incidents involving police officers killed on duty, which could sway their judgement.

During 2016, the Police Federation commissioned Ipsos Mori to undertake a survey of public attitudes to police taser carriage: 71% of those surveyed thought that the routine deployment of tasers was acceptable, with the figure rising to 89% when tasers were deployed in conjunction with body-worn video cameras.

Public safety first. llee_wu/Flickr, CC BY-ND

With public opinion so firmly in favour of police carrying tasers, it’s worth considering why the vast majority of officers remain unarmed while on duty. Public safety may be one reason: research reveals that, as the number of officers armed with tasers increases, so does the rate at which they’re used. This supposedly “less-than-lethal” technology has been linked to at least ten deaths following contact with police in England and Wales during the decade to 2015.

Evidence has also emerged of a dangerous form of taser misuse, which involves police aiming at the chest area, contrary to the manufacturer’s guidance. Further questions were raised about the routine use of tasers following an unfortunate incident in Avon and Somerset, where police tasered one of their own race equality advisers.

Armed and dangerous

There are also lessons to be learned from other countries where police carry weapons. Australia provides a useful example: during the 1980s, the rising number of police carrying firearms was associated with increased rates of police-related civilian fatalities. In Victoria, Project Beacon was introduced to retrain police in conflict management and weapons use. Police shooting incidents fell dramatically, and policing encounters became safer for the police, and for the public.

Comparisons between Swedish (routinely armed) and Norwegian (routinely unarmed) policing practice can also shed light on the issue. Swedish police officers opened fire in police-citizen encounters about five times more often than their Norwegian counterparts – and were also more frequently injured. Researchers noted that the absence of police firearms actually helped to protect officers. Of course, other factors such as the numbers of guns held by private citizens and police tactics will influence these outcomes, too.

When it comes to police weaponisation, international research offers clear guidance. Although many police officers feel they may be safer if they are permitted to carry weapons, in reality they might not be. What’s more, the public at large – and especially minorities, young people and people suffering mental health issues – are likely to be significantly less safe when confronted by police officers. When deciding whether or not to routinely arm police, evidence – rather than opinion – should be our guide: this issue is too important to be left to the police alone.

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