Tuesday, August 18, 2009 

Don't tase us bros!

The latest figures released on the use of tasers by police forces across the country are starting to look concerning. While the jump from 187 uses between October to December 2008 to 250 during January to March this year can be explained by how the Home Office allowed Chief Officers to decide when "specially-trained" units can be deployed with the weapons, it doesn't explain why different forces are using them far more readily than others.

The most startling are the number of uses by Northumbria police, which since April 2004 has used tasers in one way or another on 704 occasions, 4 more than even the Met has. This is an astounding number, especially when compared to another force of similar size and with a similar urban environment, Merseyside, who also took part in the same trial as Northumbria and which has used them just 76 times in total. One explanation might that more units were trained in their use than in the other forces, but Northumbria's use still seems to be remarkably high. Northumbria claim that their use is highest because they're the only force to train firearm response officers to also use them, and that the rise would correspond with the drop in firearm officers being deployed, in contrast to other forces, but it also makes you wonder whether because officers know this they more readily call for help when faced with problems they would have dealt with themselves before. Only the Met and West Yorkshire actually fully "discharged", as in fired rather than threatened their use or pressed the weapon up against the person on more occasions.

The biggest worry with the use of tasers has to be that when the police would previously have reasoned extensively to subdue someone who was uncooperative with them, or used acceptable, if subjective force to achieve the same result, the weapon becomes the first resort rather than the last, even if used just simply as a threat. Unlike in the US, where the Taser was meant to be deployed as an alternative to firearms (even if, somewhat predictably, no such fall in the use of guns seems to have been noted), police in this country have only ever used guns when the suspect is also believed to have or has used one. That tasers seem to be entering normal police use, and that as a result, their use also becomes to be seen as normal is a cause for concern when the safety of the weapons is far from being certain. As the Guardian leader argues, the exact circumstances of their use, as well as how they were used needs to be recorded to ensure that the above doesn't become the norm. The police blogger Nightjack wrote that most police were approachable and pleasant, it was just that they had started to dress and be armed like "imperial stormtroopers" which worried and put the general public off. The casual deployment of tasers would only make such attitudes worse.

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Saturday, February 10, 2007 

Human rights deja-vu.

Sometimes, you have to feel sympathy for government ministers, especially those responsible for bringing in the Human Rights Act, and who today have to defend it when the police and media jump to blame it for every single conceivable modern ill. It also brings an overwhelming feeling of deja-vu when you read the same old rubbish about it being perpetuated again and again.

Today, the Sun reports the Northumbria Police haven't even bothered to read the incredibly clear 18 articles which make it obvious that what they're refusing to do is not just allowed, but almost encouraged by the Act:
SENIOR cops are keeping details of suspected criminals who are on the run secret — to protect THEIR human rights.

Northumbria Police have released the names and pictures of five suspects they are desperate to trace.

But astonishingly, senior officers have refused to reveal details of the alleged offences.

Cops say they are sticking to Home Office guidelines and the Human Rights’ Act.

This comes only a month or so after the last Human Rights Act outrage, when Derbyshire police blamed the HRA for not producing photographs of two murderers who had absconded from open prison. This is a slightly different case, as it involves men who are only accused, rather than being convicted, but the HRA and the ACPO guidelines are still fairly clear.

The "offending" article is Article 8, the right to respect for family and private life:

2. There shall be no interference by a public authority with the exercise of this right except such as is in accordance with the law and is necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security, public safety or the economic well-being of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.

And here's the ACPO guidelines (the PDF in full is available from here) on releasing photographs. Notice that there's no explicit advice on not revealing why a suspect is wanted:

Article 8 of the Human Rights Act gives everyone the right to respect for his or her private and family life, home and correspondence, and publication of photographs could constitute a breach of this. The article does however allow the publication in accordance with law and as is necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security, public safety or the economic well-being of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of public health or morals or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others. However, the Act requires that action taken under it is proportionate, and this is a particular consideration in respect of the nature of publication (for example the geographical reach and longevity of publication).

There's absolutely nothing there to suggest that making public why someone is wanted in connection with a crime would breach the act. The real concern would be over whether the evidence against the person wanted is strong enough to lead to a prosecution; sending out wanted posters with someone's face all over them with the alleged crime, only for them to be later found not guilty, could lead to potential defamation of character cases. This though is nothing to do with the Human Rights Act, but with the libel laws. If the police are concerned enough to release photographs, then there's nothing to stop them naming what they're accused of.

Article 5 also doesn't provide any solace for someone wanted in connection with a committed offence:

c) the lawful arrest or detention of a person effected for the purpose of bringing him before the competent legal authority on reasonable suspicion of having committed an offence or when it is reasonably considered necessary to prevent his committing an offence or fleeing after having done so;

The entire thing is ridiculous, and it's down to Northumbria police reading the law wrong or just being far too cautious. They've already released the names and photographs of the wanted men, they're just refusing to say what they're wanted in connection with, and as anyone who watches Crimewatch will tell you, they've been doing both for years and haven't run into any problems yet.

As always, the opportunist politicians jump at the chance of getting their soundbites and names into the papers:

North East Conservative Euro MP Martin Callanan said: “This is yet another instance of the rights of suspected criminals being put before those of the law-abiding population.”

Really? Even without their alleged crimes being made public, they're still having their names and photographs published. It's not as if the police are refusing to do anything whatsoever.
A Northumbria Police spokesman said: “When deciding to release photos of people wanted on warrant there are strict criteria which must be met.”

Err? You've already released their photographs, so the strict criteria must have been met. Did someone not tell him what the "controversy" is all about, or has he got the wrong end of the stick?

The Sun article itself doesn't bother to mention that all the men are wanted for not turning up at court, as well as any other charges, as this article from the Newcastle Evening Chronicle makes clear. It also prints the mugshots of all six men, while the Sun only bothers to display the one of Casey. Northumbria Police's own page on the six men is here.

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