Terrorism is not a good reason to arm the police with tasers

Useless? Rui Vieira/PA Wire

Tasers are absolutely necessary in the fight against terrorism, according to the chair of the UK Police Federation, Steve White. The statement – made in an interview with The Guardian – saw White demand that all UK police should carry the controversial electroshock weapons.

His comments came in response to new evidence that terrorists are planning to target police officers. The current terrorist threat level in the UK is at “severe” –- a reaction to the recent attacks in Paris and arrests in Belgium. Police are due to vote on whether or not to approve the plans.

Even leaving aside the ongoing heated debate and the fact that the United Nations has condemned them as a form of torture – White’s statement is outrageous and irresponsible.

Weapon of choice

There is no evidence that tasers are in any way essential for counter-terrorism, and White’s dubious rationale for them does nothing to change this. Yes, protecting police lives is important, and few would have an issue with that. But it’s not clear what exactly White expects officers to do with tasers in the event of a terrorist strike.

For tasers to be effective, you have to see the threat coming, and terrorism seldom works like that. Terrorists do not typically give their victims advance warning that they are about to attack. So it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which a police officer would have a clear opportunity to react to a terrorist with a taser – especially since many attacks are suicide bombings or covert assaults.

The new face of British counterterrorism. Gareth Fuller/PA

Armed police across the world have not been able to prevent deadly attacks in this way, even when carrying guns, which surely pose a more obvious threat than tasers do.

And if this is all about responding to a shifting, unpredictable threat, surely it follows that everyone in the country should be given a taser. After all, everybody is a possible victim of terrorism – when we fly in a plane, when we walk down the street, or when we travel on the Tube. If public safety is his real concern, White needs to explain why tasers are only apt for police use.

Even if we accept that arming police can be a special case, this isn’t enough.

If these powers are being mooted because of new terrorist threats to the police, then surely White is suggesting that tasers should be used only against terrorist suspects. But allowing police to use tasers in any situation would be a very different issue.

Excuses, excuses

This is another example of how the authorities exploit the threat of domestic terrorism to acquire new powers. Like the dog eating your homework, terrorism is the perfect excuse, fit to justify seemingly anything – even new powers and weapons that have only a tenuous connection to terrorism at best.

It is a classic case of mission creep. It is a naked attempt to expand police powers under the guise of counter-terrorism. This is an incredibly dangerous tendency, and it must be stopped. We cannot let terrorism become an excuse for enhancing police powers and deploying new weapons in cases that do not warrant it.

Otherwise, the nationwide rollout of tasers could be just the latest concession in a long list of freedoms we have given up.