On 15 August 2016, ex-footballer Dalian Atkinson died as a result of excessive use of force by police. West Mercia officers shot Atkinson with a taser, beat him, and kicked him in the head. On 23 June, the court found PC Benjamin Monk guilty of the manslaughter of Atkinson. According to INQUEST, this is the first time in 35 years that a UK police officer has been found guilty of manslaughter following a death in police contact or custody. Although this is a landmark conviction, we have yet to see justice properly served as UK police continue to use force excessively and disproportionately against Black people.
A harmful weapon
On 19 June – just days before the court handed down the judgement on Atkinson’s case – the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) found Greater Manchester police’s use of a taser on NHS worker Desmond Ziggy Mombeyarara to be lawful. In May 2020, police pulled Mombeyarara over for speeding. They proceeded to taser him for making “no real attempt to comply” with police. Believing that police had shot his father, Mombeyarara’s distressed 5-year-old son screamed “Daddy” when his limp body slumped to the ground.
The IOPC found no reason to take disciplinary action over the case. The inquiry found “no evidence to suggest the complainant’s ethnicity was a factor in the decision to use force against him”. But according to Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS) statistics, UK police are more likely to taser Black people.
Black people make up around 3% of the UK population, but they account for 8% of deaths in police custody. According to 2019/20 data from HMICFRS, police are over 5 times more likely to use force against Black people than their white counterparts. They are 9 times more likely to draw tasers on Black people. Tasers – which deliver a high-voltage electric shock – can cause severe physical and mental harm.
Use of taser in mental health crises
According to INQUEST, “the proportion of BAME deaths in custody where mental health-related issues are a feature is nearly two times greater than it is in other deaths in custody”. And police are more likely to taser people in mental health distress. In 2017, police used tasers against mental health patients in healthcare settings 96 times. Dr Kerry Pimblott, lecturer at the University of Manchester and Resistance Lab member, said:
Tasers are used by police in ways that reinforce systemic racism and other interlocking inequalities with disproportionate and potentially lethal consequences for black communities and individuals with mental health conditions in particular.
Tragically, this was the case for Darren Cumberbatch. In 2017, police beat and tasered Cumberbatch while he was experiencing a mental health crisis. An inquest found the police’s excessive use of force contributed to his premature death. But up until June 2020, there had been no prosecution.
While also in Ireland, in December 2020, gardai (Irish police) shot and killed young George Nkencho on his doorstep while he was experiencing a mental health crisis. The inquest into his death opened on 21 June. His family is now calling on a coroner to examine “the wider and broader circumstances of a young black man being shot dead by a white officer”.
Use of taser on children
A 2018 report by the Children’s Rights Alliance England (CRAE) revealed that in 2017, police used tasers against children at least 871 times. Some of these children were as young as 12. Police also tasered four children under the age of 10. During the first 9 months of 2018, police used the electric weapon against children 839 times, suggesting that their use against children is increasing.
According to CRAE, police used tasers disproportionately against BAME children, who make up around 18% of the 10-17-year-old population. Over half of the children police tasered were from a BAME background. According to 2019 data, 74% of taser incidents involving children in London involved BAME children.
Responding to a call from the UN ‘committee on the rights of the child’ for the UK government to stop using tasers on children, the government said:
While we support the recommendation in principle, we believe it is impractical to implement it while Taser is in use for other age groups and officers’ first priority must be to defend members of the public or themselves.
This response strongly suggests that the government is more concerned with controlling children than protecting them and their rights.
Time for change
Although Monk’s conviction for the manslaughter of Atkinson was a landmark moment for police accountability, 103 more people have died in or following police custody or contact since Atkinson’s death. This means 103 more grieving families left without justice and without answers. And in spite of the evidence of the profound harm tasers can cause, in 2019, the Home Office announced it would spend £10m on arming more police officers with the electronic weapon.
As Leicester East MP Claudia Webbe shared, we need “formal oversight” and “scrutiny” – not more tasers. If we don’t see change, we will see more deaths, and more grieving families without access to justice or reparation.
Featured image via Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona/Unsplash
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