Socialist Worker

Deadly force - cops and their lethal weapons

Cops love their “non-lethal” Tasers so much that their use is rocketing. But they are an ideological tool in the hands of our rulers—and there’s no way of making them safe, argues Dave Sewell. Pictures by Guy Smallman

Issue No. 2518

British police have a reputation for not being armed. They dont deserve it

British police have a reputation for not being armed. They don't deserve it (Pic: Guy Smallman)


The death of Dalian Atkinson last week exposed the deadly nature of Tasers. Yet cops are using them more and more.

Officers raised, aimed or fired a Taser 3,128 times in 2009. By 2014 this had tripled to 10,062.

In 2013, when Jordan Begley died in Manchester after a nine-second Taser burst, more than one cop in ten was Taser-trained.

The Police Federation wants every officer to carry one.

Tasers were rolled out to firearms officers in 2004, then specially trained units in 2008. They were sold as a “non-lethal” alternative to guns.

But Lee Freeman, assistant chief constable of Lincolnshire police, explained that Tasers mean officers don’t have to “wait” for weapons specialists.

A report this year showed that police in Lincolnshire topped the chart in terms of Taser use per 10,000 of the population in 2014.

At least ten people have died after being tasered in Britain. In the US police Tasers were linked to 49 deaths last year alone, according to the Guardian newspaper’s The Counted database.

Machine guns are now a routine presence around London landmarks

Machine guns are now a routine presence around London landmarks (Pic: Guy Smallman)


Tasers fire two barbs into the victim’s body then discharge 50,000 volts of electricity through their central nervous system. This can disrupt the heart’s rhythm.

The fact that Tasers are deadly is no secret. They even carry a manufacturers’ warning. And they are one part of a bigger picture—a tendency for cops to get more and bigger weapons.

In the US, the Department of Defense can now transfer army gear to the police. They sent in tanks against protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014.

In London and some other cities in Britain, cops wielding machine guns have gone from being a rarity to a common sight.

London’s Metropolitan Police recently unveiled new “anti-terror” units armed and armoured like soldiers on a battlefield.

Heavily armed robocops don’t help ordinary people who are victims of crimes such as burglary or sexual violence. And they don’t stop terrorism.

After the Paris attacks last November, French police were desperate to be seen as doing ­something useful.

So they pulverised a building in St Denis with thousands of machine gun ­bullets—killing their own dog in the process. The suspects inside had a single pistol.

The Met’s frantic clampdown after the 7/7 attacks in London in 2005 achieved nothing but the killing of unarmed electrician Jean-Charles de Menezes.

Their real purpose is to keep the population in line—through dramatic intimidation, routine harassment or responding to “public order events” such as riots and protests.

Rooftop snipers in Manchester with their sights trained on a TUC march in 2011

Rooftop snipers in Manchester with their sights trained on a TUC march in 2011 (Pic: Guy Smallman)


But the militarisation that US investigative journalist Radley Balko called “the rise of the warrior cop” had to overcome several obstacles.

Our rulers rule through fraud as well as force. They want to maintain the illusion of ruling in the interests of everyone. Troops patrolling the street tend to undermine this.

So a central plank of the ideology of capitalist states is a “civilian” police force very distinct from the army (see below). In Britain in particular there is a widespread sense that “our” police don’t use guns.

Attempts to overturn this ideology risk damaging the cops’ legitimacy.One way to overcome this is to create a sense of an exceptional threat—then turn the exceptional response into the rule.

Greater Manchester Police trained rooftop snipers on a 2011 TUC march. A decade of responses to terrorist scares—real, threatened and imagined—had helped normalise the presence of armed cops.

Mobile metal walls were developed ostensibly as a defence against chemical warfare. The Met first deployed them to control the route of marching public sector workers who struck in November 2011.

Another way is to develop ­methods that can be presented as non-lethal to sidestep any outrage.The British state has always used its empire as a testing bed—notably Ireland. Police there were routinely armed from the nineteenth century.

Cops in Northern Ireland had a “shoot to kill” policy for much of the “Troubles”. Riot shields pioneered there were brought to Britain after the 1981 Brixton riots.

Britain used “non-lethal” water cannons in Ireland long before former Tory mayor Boris Johnson introduced them to London.

Dietrich Wagner was blinded and almost killed by such a cannon on a protest in Stuttgart in 2010. He warned, “They are lethal weapons and do serious bodily harm.”

Heavily armed officers raid Kurdish activists tent during the 2011 Occupy London protests

Heavily armed officers raid Kurdish activists' tent during the 2011 Occupy London protests (Pic: Guy Smallman)


Rubber bullets were invented for British soldiers in Northern Ireland—and killed people including 11 year old Francis Rowntree in 1972.

In theory they are aimed at the ground to bounce at people. Even this can be deadly. But in practice soldiers fired directly at the body.

Similarly, manufacturers’ guidelines clearly warn that Tasers must be aimed away from the chest. This wouldn’t make them safe.

But in any case cops routinely fire close to the heart. Gwent Police found that 82 percent of its Taser discharges hit people in the chest.

After a 2009 review, Simon Chesterman of the Association of Chief Police Officers said officers are trained “to go for the biggest thing they can see”. So “the chances are that clearly you’re going to aim for the torso”.

Despite firing a deadly weapon in the deadliest way possible, cops still insist they aren’t guns. Those at the top fear losing this distinction in the furore over Dalian Atkinson’s death.

Labour MP Keith Vaz, chair of the home affairs select committee, has called for a review of Taser guidelines. He says police training must stress that they are “a last resort”.

Training already stresses that cops should only use Tasers where there is a severe threat of violence or where cops face violence. The training is ignored.

As with any weapons, the only way to make them safe is to take them out of cops’ hands.


Roll up for the filth’s big top arms fair

Every year the Home Office holds a secretive “Security and Policing” arms fair. Handpicked exhibitors can tout wares “too sensitive to show in a more open environment”.

One stallholder is BAE, whose armoured cars put down protests in Bahrain. Another is Chemring, which sold former Egyptian despot Hosni Mubarak the tear gas used against revolutionaries in 2011.

No wonder dictatorial regimes including Saudi Arabia shop there.

But foreign customers make up less than a third of attendees, and military customers less than an eighth. The main buyers are police, border and security forces in Britain.

Naturally, Taser maker Axon flogs its “innovative public safety technologies” there. There’s even an award for the most innovative firms.

Last year’s winner was Reveal Media for making body cameras to record cops’ actions.

These had been a demand of several justice campaigns and were brought in partly to try and defuse anger over police killings. But the cops who arrested Dalian Atkinson weren’t even wearing theirs.

The year before the award winner was RepKnight, which makes software for monitoring social media. Perhaps they’ll be in for a slice of the £1.7 million earmarked for the Met’s new unit to hunt down online “trolls”.

The pile of cash up for grabs is huge. Cops get £12 billion every year. Much of it goes on equipment, with some forces paying up to ten times the going rate.


More than one in ten cops carries a device theyve been trained how to use for pain compliance

More than one in ten cops carries a device they've been trained how to use for "pain compliance" (Pic: Guy Smallman)


Trained for handheld torture

Tasers can also be used for “pain compliance”—hurting someone until they do what they are told.

This involves holding a Taser directly against someone’s body, a technique called “drive stun”. Some US forces officially use this portable torture method.

In Britain, cops’ training shows them how to do it, then tells them not to.

Neil Basu of the Association of Chief Police Officers said the training was in case of “emergency circumstances where it is needed”.

The Police Federation wants the technique to be officially authorised. Drive stuns made up 16 percent of police Taser firings in 2014.


Two centuries of hypocrisy

Police in Britain were founded to protect property and keep workers down.

When the industrial revolution brought together millions of working class people in mushrooming cities, the establishment grew terrified of the “mob”.

Their fears grew as workers began to organise for their rights.

The state had the army. But wherever it stationed barracks they provoked resentment. And it didn’t always trust soldiers, who often felt closer to the workers than to their commanders.

If the army was sent in to control protests, workers could be killed—creating outrage. Letting bosses form their own militia of “yeomanry” only made this worse.

Yeomanry charged into a peaceful mass rally in St Peter’s Field, Manchester, 197 years ago last week, killing at least 15 people and injuring hundreds.

This “Peterloo” massacre created such uproar that the government feared an armed uprising.

The following decade saw professional police forces set up—notably the Met in 1929.

Unlike soldiers, cops were carefully taught to look down on the populations they “served” with suspicion and contempt—particularly large gatherings.

And they were trained to contain rallies and riots without repeating the Peterloo scandal.

Their batons could do real damage. And the guns were still there when these weren’t enough, with troops used against strikers well into the 20th century.

But for an institution built on violence the new police made a big show of not carrying weapons. Tasers were made to continue this hypocrisy.


Shock treatment for mentally ill

You’re never too young, old or ill to get electrocuted by coppers.

Tasers were used to threaten or shoot children at least 407 times in England and Wales in 2014-15. Some 57 of these were 14 years old or younger, according to the Stopwatch campaign.

West Yorkshire Police tasered a man alone in a bus depot and unresponsive due to hypoglycemic shock in 2005. The Met tasered an 82 year old man in west London in 2011—leaving him hospitalised for days.

Black people are three times more likely to be tasered in Britain than the population as a whole. And more than two thirds of police Taser victims have mental health problems.


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