Police say they need tasers to combat terror – but where's the evidence?

Terrorism is the hook which everyone can hang their coat on. Whenever there is a terror attack, the usual suspects come out the woodwork to suggest it confirms whatever they already held to be true – be it multiculturalism, or Islamic fascism, or the need for a snoopers' charter.

So it came as no surprise when Police Federation boss Steve White popped up on the airwaves this weekend saying terrorism means all front-line police officers should get a Taser. He did not provide any evidence for how the electro-shock guns would help officers deal with specific terror threats. He did not need to. Terrorism, like paedophilia, is the ultimate bogey man. Merely mentioning its name is evidence enough.

Except the evidence shows that the last thing we need is a nationwide roll-out of Tasers. The electric shock guns are already spreading across UK police forces at an extraordinary rate. Police in England and Wales used them on over 10,000 occasions in 2013, a 27% increase on the previous year. In 2009, there were used on a little over 3,000 occasions.

Advocates for the weapon say it is a non-lethal alternative to firearms. There is nothing wrong with this argument. As even Amnesty International admits there is definitely a role for the weapon in policing. But as with all powers handed to the police, there are strong signs of mission creep.

The Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC), which supports the use of Tasers, has warned that police are using the weapon on people who are already in custody. It has "major concerns" about the use of the weapon in 'drive-stun' mode, where it is applied directly to the body rather than fired from a distance. When used this way it does not have an incapacitating effect and is instead a form of pain compliance. But in many of the cases investigated by the watchdog, it had the opposite effect and actually stimulated further resistance.

Tasers have gradually been adopted by more and more police forces

Tasers are potentially life-threatening. Last December, a man died after being shot with a Taser by police during an attempted robbery. There are plenty of similar cases, such as twenty-three year old Jordan Lee Begley, or petrol-soaked Andrew Pimlott, who was tasered while holding what appeared to be a lit match and caught fire. There have been at least ten deaths in England and Wales over the past decade.

Campaigners say Taser use against children has increased six-fold over four years. Devon and Cornwall police were criticised for using a Tasers against two boys aged 14 and 15 in a school.

In the US, where Taser use is far higher and the police are generally more trigger-happy than our own, more than 460 people have been killed by the weapons. In many cases, the coroner said the electro-shock weapon was a contributory factor.

We might have more confidence in the police's use of the weapon if they had bothered to properly record and analyse information about its use. But at the moment guidelines, training programmes and usage data are left up to each individual force and the results are predictably fuzzy. There is no standard form of recording Taser usage, so some forces have gone into detail about how the weapon was used, against whom and when - and many haven't.

American students demonstrate against Taser use in 2006

The IPCC found many forces took the police officer's description of the Taser incident at face value "without any further probing". Officers are not being asked to even provide their rationale for using the weapon, let alone having forces analyse the extent and type of use.

This failure of analysis partly explains the significant differences in how often the weapon is used by different forces. Staffordshire police, for the record, are the most enthusiastic, having discharged them on 72 occasions and drawn them "as a deterrent" 547 times over nine years.

Tasers certainly have a role in policing – there are few serious organisations who question that. But as with all police powers, there is a temptation for them to be used in an ever-growing number of situations. To have faith in the police's ability to use this weapon responsibly, we need clear data on usage, which includes not just whether it was fired but why and when. Until that bare minimum requirement of scrutiny is met, we should be sceptical of the sudden need for a full roll-out.

If the police think they need the weapon to combat terror, they must be able to prove it.

Prisoner book ban comes to an end

The ban on prisoners receiving books in prison was brought to an end yesterday, after new regulations were introduced by the Ministry of Justice.

The annex to the Incentives and Earned Privileges Scheme in the Prison Service Instructions 2013 marks the culmination of a long campaign by writers, lawyers and prison reformers to have the draconian policy reversed.

The annex reads:

"Friends and families of prisoners are able, from 31 January 2015, to order books from approved retailers, who will source and send the books on to prisoners."

Prisoners will now be able to be sent an unlimited number of books from Blackwell's, Foyles, Waterstones or WH Smith.

They will also be able to send or hand in a book directly in "exceptional circumstances", which will include when a book is not available from the approved retailers.

The exceptional circumstances clause will allow many prisoners doing educational courses the ability to secure text books which are vital to their progress.

The exception to the ban on parcels will also include audio books.

The lifting of the ban comes nearly two months after the high court ruled it to be unlawful, following a judicial review by lawyers working pro-bono to challenge the Ministry of Justice.

The department did not appeal the ruling, but pushed back implementation until after Christmas so it would not be inundated by books being sent in in time for the holidays.

Chris Grayling's arguments for the ban were comprehensively dismissed by Mr Justice Collins, whose ruling concluded that to consider books a privilege "is strange".

But two weeks ago the justice secretary was still insisting that the policy did not exist.

He told Conservative Home:

"There was never a ban on books for prisoners. It was a fabrication by a left-wing pressure group."

The campaign against the prisoner book ban began when Howard League chief executive Frances Crook wrote a piece for Politics.co.uk.

Migrant voters could help swing the election result

The conventional wisdom is that the only electorally successful immigration policy is a hardline one. Ed Miliband has bent over backwards to find a position which reassures critical voters without compromising his progressive principles, but when it comes to Labour's election leaflets they might as well have been written by Tory backbenchers.

So party strategists might like to take a look at new research by the Centre on Dynamics of Ethnicity at the University of Manchester and the Migrants' Rights Network. It shows foreign-born voters could prove decisive in several seats at the election if they turn out in sufficient numbers.

The migrant share of the electorate is twice as large as the majority of the incumbent in at least 70 seats, including several key outer London and Midlands marginal seats.

As Ruth Grove-White, co-author of the report, said:

"The electoral voice of migrants themselves has been largely overlooked. This new data shows just how important it is to speak to this constituency. The risk facing the parties today is that their current fierce rhetoric over immigration will have a lasting impact on the political orientations of the new migrant electorate.

"While we know that migrant voters do not form a voting bloc, voting patterns suggest that migrant voters are likely to prefer parties that they view as positive about race equality and immigration issues."

There's just under four million foreign-born voters in England and Wales who'll be eligible to vote in the May election, with the majority from large, established Commonwealth migrant communities such as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria and South Africa.

Parties have more to lose than they think they do by alienating these groups. Migrants feel strongly about the way they are labelled as workshy scroungers by the media and politicians while contributing more to the economy than the indigenous population. Politicians have for too long presumed that the blanket negativity about immigration on TV and in newspapers reflects the views of the public, but it is far more nuanced than that, especially when split across constituencies.

The Conservatives especially are the losers of this approach. Many people in the Asian communities are natural Tories. They believe in hard work, not relying on the state, and are socially conservative. The fact most would never dream of voting Tory is not about political values, but a sense the party dislikes them. It is not an unfounded one given some of the fierce rhetoric it engages in.

But the report shouldn't just be read by party strategists. Migrants themselves should read it and realise their power. If they don't like the way the debate has turned in recent years, they should get out there and do something about it. The temptation among many is to retreat, but only the vocal expression of anger with this toxic conversation can help turn it round. Like young people, they are much stronger than they realise.

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