The deadly rise of Tasers in British policing

The deadly rise of Tasers in British policing

Say Their Names — A sharp increase in officers armed with the electrical weapon is resulting in serious injuries and deaths, with Black people and those suffering from mental ill health more likely to be Tasered.

On 7 June 2022, a 41-year-old Black man was tasered repeatedly by a Metropolitan Police officer on Chelsea Bridge. Oladeji Adeyemi Omishore, from Pimlico, fell to the ground and appeared to drop something, after receiving the five-second electric shock, a video shows.

Oladeji was tasered twice more when he tried to sit up, with officers yelling at him to comply. He staggered over two barriers into the River Thames and died in hospital later that evening.

The Metropolitan Police initially claimed that Oladeji had been carrying a screwdriver – and shouting – while walking towards the bridge, but witnesses disputed this and it’s since emerged he was merely holding a lighter.

In a recent statement, Oladeji’s family raised concerns about the misinformation surrounding their loved one’s death, criticising both the Met and the IOPC for taking over a week to correct this inaccurate statement. Oladeji often used the lighter with his cigarettes, his family says.

It’s well-known by police that early reports of any incident stick in the public mind. Selen Cavcav is a senior case worker at Inquest, a charity that provides expertise on state-related deaths. “Misinformation and false narratives immediately following a death is a common tactic which deflects attention from serious public concern, and protects police from necessary criticism,” says Selen. “These tactics must be independently investigated along with the wider circumstances of the death.”

This fatal incident raises urgent questions as to why it was considered acceptable to repeatedly taser someone in mental distress. It comes at a time when public confidence and trust in the police is at an all-time low. The Metropolitan Police is now in “special measures” following a series of scandals, from the murder of Sarah Everard to the strip-searching of an innocent Black school girl during her period. For the Met, this means increased scrutiny and a demand for the service’s leadership to produce an improvement plan. The Met will be forced to regularly report to inspectors and the Home Office, with an oversight group scrutinising the changes made.

The Metropolitan Police did not respond to Huck’s request for comment.

Tasers are playing a bigger role in British policing than ever, with 34,429 incidents across England and Wales between March 2020 and April 2021. The subject had a mental health condition in 24 per cent of taser discharges, according to Home Office figures.

In a June 2022 family court case, a judge demanded Lancashire Police explain the treatment of a suicidal girl, 16, taken into the care of Blackpool council. The girl was threatened with a Taser and told she was “wasting police time” after cops were tasked with stopping her from jumping off a motorway bridge.

It’s likely that Taser use will continue to increase, as last month Home Secretary Priti Patel announced controversial plans to arm over 8,900 volunteer police officers with the electrical weapons. And similarly, Police Scotland is in the midst of a £3 million scheme to provide a four-fold increase in Taser officers.

But despite the optimistic title of “less lethal weapon”, a Taser discharge has resulted in a total of 18 deaths across England and Wales, Amnesty International reports. Similarly, there have been over 1000 deaths in the US following a police altercation involving the device.

The Taser X26, which is used by UK cops, causes extreme pain and constitutes torture, the United Nations Committee Against Torture and other Cruel, Degrading and Inhumane Treatment notes. And what’s more, if you’re not a police officer, you could spend up to 10 years in prison for carrying this prohibited weapon.

Marc Cole, age 30, died after being repeatedly tasered – “nearly continuously” for 43 seconds – by a Devon and Cornwall Police officer in May 2017. The Taser contributed to his death and he hadn’t been aggressive or posed a threat, an inquest later concluded. The dad-of-two was experiencing a mental health crisis – with depressive and paranoid thoughts – after the death of his father. Emergency services were called to his friend’s house in Falmouth, on Cornwall’s south coast, after neighbours reported Marc was acting erratically.

“A number of people dialed 999, as my brother had a knife and threatened to self-harm,” says Marc’s sister, Lisa Cole, who is from Manchester. “One caller said Marc ‘looked like a lost soul’ and was ‘wandering’, but ‘not appearing to threaten anyone’, so he hoped to get some medical help.”

But on arrival, officers made “no attempt to de-escalate” the situation before running towards Marc and yelling at him to drop the knife, eye-witnesses told the inquest. When he immediately failed to comply, PC Timothy Wilson tasered him for six seconds.

Marc fell to the floor, but – less than a second later – PC Wilson reactivated the Taser for 22 seconds and then 15 seconds, the internal log on the device showed. Officers later claimed it was because Marc lifted a knife to his throat, but eye-witnesses dispute this.

In total, Marc was tasered for almost ten times longer than the recommended amount of five seconds. He went into cardiac arrest and died 20 minutes later. “Witnesses described him shout, ‘What have I done?’ But they said he appeared confused rather than aggressive and angry,” Lisa says.

The prolonged use of the Taser had a “more than trivial” impact on Marc going into cardiac arrest, an inquest concluded. It was noted that alcohol and cocaine, consumed much earlier in the day, was detected in Marc’s body. And while Taser manufacturer, Axon, claims the device is safe to use around people who have consumed alcohol and drugs, a medical expert told the inquest that research on Taser safety is flawed as it’s largely produced by the manufacturer.

Like the family of Oladeji, Marc’s loved ones describe a struggle to get the facts on what happened that day. “An inquest is meant to be about the truth,” Nadine Kinder, Marc’s partner, says. “But the only truth I remain sure of is that two innocent children were robbed of a life with their dad and me.”

The inquest heard that in an initial statement, PC Wilson, who served with Devon and Cornwall Police for 16 years, said he’d only activated the Taser once. In his second September 2017 statement, PC Wilson said he’d used it twice. While giving evidence at the inquest, he told the jury that he’d used it three times.

PC Wilson said he was “given guidance” by a PolFed solicitor to say that he activated the Taser on two occasions, even though it was used three times. The officer admitted that, on reflection, he regretted taking that advice.

“Other officers present at the scene gave conflicting accounts, later blaming the advice of the PolFed solicitors,” Lisa says. “They initially claimed he stabbed someone, but it later emerged – in court – he’d accidentally grazed someone when climbing over a hedge. It was literally less than a cat scratch and paramedics confirmed it didn’t need medical attention.”

This cavalier attitude from Devon and Cornwall Police – and the subsequent resistance to scrutiny following a death – is symptomatic of a deeper cultural problem in law enforcement across Britain, Lisa and fellow campaigners note.

Officers often stick together to corroborate one another’s accounts with the implicit consent of PolFed representatives and managers. The end result is often thinly-veiled hostility and contempt for people at their most vulnerable, victims’ families say. “Like George Floyd, my brother called out for his mum in his last words. He was terrified and dying. Literally lying on the floor, foaming at the mouth and struggling to breathe,” Lisa says. “Officers later mocked him by writing witness statements specifically saying ‘Marc was calling for his mummy’. But others at the scene confirmed he didn’t use the word ‘mummy’ like the police claimed.”

Responding to the claims made in this article, Devon and Cornwall Police said: “This case has been investigated by the force’s Professional Standards Department and Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) and has been the subject of a jury inquest. All concluded that the performance of our officers did not fall below the standard expected in incredibly difficult circumstances. The equipment our officers use and training they undertake is also overseen by the National Police Chiefs Council, College of Policing and central government.

“Stating that we are a body that is resistant to scrutiny, or that this tragic death somehow alludes to a cultural problem within policing, is simply not accurate.”

Since this incident and the painful aftermath, Lisa has met countless families across the country who seek greater accountability around taser use in policing. Among them are the loved ones of Adrian McDonald, 34, who died after being repeatedly tasered by cops during a mental health crisis in December 2014.

“Staffordshire Police were called to help my brother three days before Christmas. He’d barricaded himself in a room and was really distressed,” Wayne, Adrian’s brother, says. “But instead, they tried to arrest him and tasered him for 25 seconds, while simultaneously setting their Alsatian dog on him.”

The police dog bit Adrian five times with the bites going through his skin and fat, then into his muscle. “My brother begged for an ambulance, but they were more interested in the welfare of their dog. That says it all to me,” says Wayne.

Adrian was left slumped in the cage of a police van and heavily breathing, vehicle and body cam footage shows. He gasped, “I can’t breathe” four times, and the word, “please”, to which the officer simply responded: “You can breathe because you’re talking”. The police failed to call an ambulance. Though Adrian was twitching and lost consciousness, another nine minutes passed before an officer called an ambulance. He was pronounced dead at the scene, while still handcuffed.

“As it stands, the police are covering up poor treatment of families who’ve lost their loved ones,” Wayne explains. “They originally told the public my brother was a burglar, even though they knew he wasn’t. I know they do this for their own benefit; vilify the victim so the organisation’s reputation isn’t tarnished.”

Adrian died as a result of the stress of the incident, an inquest ruled. Like Marc and others before him, he had consumed cocaine earlier in the day, and – when combined with the impact of the taser – this likely contributed to his death. The two arresting officers were initially found guilty of misconduct, but this verdict was overturned on appeal.

Staffordshire Police did not respond to Huck’s request for comment.

As a Black man experiencing mental health issues, Adrian was seven times more likely to be tasered than a white person in the same situation. He was also significantly more likely to face prolonged use lasting over five seconds, an IOPC report from 2021 highlights.

Former Metropolitan Police officer, Ali Hassan Ali – who left the force after realising it’s failing many Black people including men with mental health struggles – is campaigning for tighter regulation around police use of Tasers. Ali is also a founding member of Operation Withdraw Consent, an organisation that encourages society to collectively withdraw its consent to poor-policing practice.

“It’s well-known that Black people are more likely to be incorrectly perceived as aggressive by cops, whether they’re in need of mental health assistance, the victim of a crime, or even someone who may have committed an offense themselves,” says Ali. “This negative perception of certain ethnic groups is clear in many of the processes, attitudes and beliefs in policing culture. We know that 90 per cent of Met officers disciplined for racism still work for the force. And the organisation failed to record the grounds for one-in-four stop and searches, yet again evading scrutiny of whether they were justifiable.”

He continues: “From the response to these fatal taser incidents, it’s clear that this lack of transparency is a problem all over the country though, from Falmouth to London and Stoke-on-Trent – so I don’t hold out hope for immediate change.”

Limited transparency and accountability for loss of life mean that preventable deaths following police contact will continue, with marginalised groups most at risk. But campaigners, who refuse to let the names of those who’ve died be forgotten, aren’t giving up on the fight for justice.

Say Their Names is a series uncovering the stories behind the staggering number of deaths in police custody or following contact with the police. See more of the series here

Follow Rebecca Tidy on Twitter.

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