Concern is growing among human rights campaigners and politicians over the widespread and potentially lethal police use of Tasers after an innocent blind man was shot with a stun gun when his white stick was mistaken for a samurai sword.
Colin Farmer, 61, was Tasered in the back after police received reports of a man running through Chorley, Lancashire, with a sword. The Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) is investigating but the officer involved has not been suspended and remains on duty.
Earlier this month, James McCarthy, a 22-year-old man from Liverpool, suffered a cardiac arrest after he was Tasered four times by Merseyside police. He was left critically ill in hospital following a disturbance at Albert Dock after a night out with friends. The force confirmed the matter has been referred to the IPCC.
Taser use in England rose by 45% in 2011 and the numbers are expected to continue to increase as more weapons are given to rank-and-file officers. The stun guns were fired by police at 27-year-old Dale Burns in Barrow, Cumbria, last year, who later died. In the US, where they are more regularly used, there have been hundreds of deaths.
Sophie Khan, a solicitor advocate at McMillan Williams, who set up the legal action group Police Action Centre to challenge the widespread use of stun guns, cites a case in which a mentally ill man on a roof was hit with a Taser by police and the muscle spasms led to him falling off the roof. She said she was also aware of a case in Birmingham of a disabled man who was Tasered after he was physically incapable of leaving his mobility vehicle as demanded by police.
"Their use is too wide and too loose," she said. "There needs to be more control and restraint; training needs to be looked at, otherwise we are in a situation where police are breaching article 3 of the Human Rights Act and the state is responsible for such breaches."
Before 2008, the use of Tasers was restricted to firearms officers, but their use has increased in recent years as more frontline officers have access to them.
Khan said ordinary people were being Tasered in circumstances where it was not warranted. She describes the Farmer case as "probably the worst example. It's a bit obvious that he had no weapon and is an elderly man and there's no threat to the public or the police."
The weapons were deployed during the eviction of Travellers at Dale Farm in Essex a year ago and controversially earlier this year on Peter Russell, a 59-year-old man with Alzheimer's, in Epworth, Lincolnshire.
The Police Federation wants to treble the number of officers using Tasers from the 12,000 currently in use to 36,000. Forces in England and Wales fired the weapons on more than 1,500 occasions in the year ending March 2011.
Officers are supposed to use the Tasers only as a last resort where they "would be facing violence or threats of violence of such severity that they would need to use such force to protect the public, themselves and/or the subject".
Deborah Coles, co-director of Inquest, said Tasers posed an "ever present risk of death or injury". She added: "We've always said the more weapons you arm police with, the more likely they are to use them. There's poor scrutiny of Taser use, which is an issue. Of particular concern is when they are used on people who are vulnerable through mental health issues or pre-existing medical conditions."
Coles wants more robust guidelines and reporting of Taser use and says the Chorley case raises questions over the "disproportionate use of force".
Amnesty's UK arms programme director, Oliver Sprague, said the Farmer incident illustrates why Amnesty insists Tasers are "used only in the strictest set of circumstances, which involves a threat to life or very serious injury".
He said: "It also shows that officers must undergo intensive, rigorous training which takes into account how to respond to people in vulnerable groups, including the visually impaired."
Essential precautions must be taken before the Taser is fired, he added, with strict Home Office guidelines outlining exactly when and in what circumstances Tasers are used. Without these, Amnesty remains "concerned" that police are more likely to use them in circumstances where it is not appropriate.
Farmer, who has had two strokes, said he was fearful he would die from another stroke when he was hit in the back. "I walk at a snail's pace," he said. "They could have walked past me, driven past me in a van or said 'drop your weapon'." The Lancashire force has since apologised to him.
London Assembly member Jenny Jones, of the Green party, said the London police authority looked at Tasers in depth after all forces were offered them by the then Labour home secretary Jacqui Smith, but rejected them. Jones is concerned that the safeguards required, such as proper training for frontline officers, "cannot possibly be maintained" given current budget cuts. She has called on London mayor Boris Johnson to urgently review any plans to roll out Tasers in the capital, as the Metropolitan police commissioner, Bernard Hogan-Howe, has "made clear his intention to expand their use".
[Image via Jason Bain, Creative Commons licensed]