Police Commissioner Mike Bush on Friday announced that tasers will be deployed for the use of all front-line officers.
The reasoning behind tasers emphasises the taser’s potential for de-escalation — a “less-than-lethal” alternative to shooting someone — sometimes on the basis very limited operational data. In 2009 and early 2010, when the weapons were on limited deployment in Auckland and Wellington, 10 people were tased, prompting then-Commissioner Howard Broad to write: “It’s pretty clear that in several instances, the person could have been shot with a firearm if Taser hadn’t been available.” The wiggle room here is important: several, could.
Technical and cultural problems
In June, science writer Phillip Ball addressed (MP3) the Royal Society of New Zealand on the topic of invisibility, emphasising that while we tend to regard advantages of this sort as technical problems they are, in reality, moral problems: problems of money, power and sex, or all three at once. One might as well say “cultural problems”. The crucial questions are not about what it does, but about how it is used, by whom, for whose benefit, and governed by what norms. This is the same profound observation that underpins restrictions on weapons of mass destruction, landmines and poison gas, why signatories to the Geneva Conventions use full metal jacketed ammunition, and why no nuclear weapons have been used in war since 1945. So it is disappointing, but not surprising, that the discussion around the Police’s deployment of tasers is largely technical, not cultural.
The justification is clearly-articulated: tasers have, the Police say, proven a useful tactical option between OC spray and a firearm. But the evidence is more complex. It is clear from New Zealand Police operational reports that tasers are safe in aggregate — from 2010 to 2014, 87% of situations where a taser was presented were resolved without it being fired, and the injury rate from their use was 1.1%.
How they are used, by whom, against whom
Aggregates do not tell the whole story. More than half of those tasered are MÄori or Pasifika, a figure that has remained reasonably consistent, and which matches the overseas experience in the UK, Canada, the USA and Australia — in Queensland from 2010 to 2012, Indigenous Australians were subject to 22.6% of taser use, despite comprising only 3.5% of the Queensland population. People with mental illness are also subject to much higher rates than others — the British Home Secretary says mentally ill people are about 30% of taser victims, and the Queensland Police Service data cited above says 24.2%. We know also that those at the margins of society, with the fewest options and the least access to legal systems and good medical support — including victims of domestic abuse, sex workers, trans people, drug users and homeless people — are also much more likely to be subject to profiling, greater suspicion, and greater threat of violence by Police. Members of these groups are also more likely to suffer from medical conditions such as heart disease and schizophrenia that can elevate the danger of being hit by a taser. Mental health risks are also particularly concerning, given how prevalent mental illness is in members of these groups, often with violence or abuse by people in power as a contributing factor.
Risks are not evenly distributed. Non-white people are overrepresented in crime statistics, and this must explain some of the increased rates of taser usage against them, but the fact that they are overrepresented is itself a function of the economic, systemic and cultural biases that infuse our society. All else being equal, wider deployment of weapons in the hands of the Police is escalation. It means those at the margins get a double-dose of systemic bias: they’re more likely to be selected as a potential criminal, and once selected, they’re more likely to be subject to violence. Those that are subject to violence then suffer greater harm and have fewer options for recovery or redress.
It is surely with this in mind that Emmy RÄkete has requested the Police release whatever research they have conducted into the lethality of tasers, and their potential for abuse. Gina Rangi also asked, on Twitter, about Police training in institutional racism, and the monitoring of it in relation to taser usage. We deserve answers to these queries.
Even the presentation of a taser without it being fired is a strong tactical option, including “laser painting” and “arcing”; explicit threats of force. And although injury rates are low, the fact that tasers are regarded as “less-than-lethal” means they tend to be used more readily than “lethal” tactical options, and are apt to be used as a compliance tool, rather than to defend the safety of Police or the public. In New Zealand, about half the time tasers are used against people who are threatening, but not violent towards Police, and according to Amnesty International, 90% of those who died as a result of taser were unarmed and do not present a serious threat. The New South Wales Ombudsman found that one in seven taser presentations was “inappropriate”, including cases of tasers being used on fleeing suspects and people who had already been handcuffed. “Less-than-lethal” violence can still be a heavy punishment.
These risks are all cultural, not technical. No amount of “less-than-lethal” rhetoric or low recorded-injury rates can adequately address these concerns when the factors leading to the decision to use a taser are not subject to the same scrutiny as its final use. Given that context, and absent significant change in the cultural factors, the wider deployment of tasers is not de-escalation, it is escalation.
Displacing firearms or augmenting the existing arsenal
To the extent that tasers displace firearms from frontline Police use, their wide deployment is a good thing, because in spite of everything else, it is generally better to be tased than to be shot. Tasers are less lethal than firearms, they operate at shorter range without such risks to bystanders, and they are equipped with cameras that provide some context to aid inquiry in case of abuse. Firearms do not record the circumstances in which a trigger is pulled — though the technology exists, and its use may grow, along with with the advent of body-cameras. While the last year’s worth of fatal shootings of unarmed black American men by white Police illustrates that technical solutions do not themselves correct cultural problems, the prospect of being charged with murder may prove a deterrent to the worst abuses. To ensure this, New Zealand should provide for the release of taser-cam footage in case of alleged abuse. (The NSW Ombudsman released video of case studies showing abuse of the weapons in that context; some are taser-cam, and some are not. You can watch them here, but be warned; some of it is quite harrowing.)
However, the real trouble with the argument that tasers displace guns isn’t with the claim that tasers are less-lethal than guns, or that they provide better oversight — it’s that that the evidence for displacement is weak, or at best unclear. In New South Wales, firearm presentations by police remained steady at about 800 per year for the three years following the introduction of tasers — while taser usage nearly tripled from 407 presentations to 1,169 over the same period. Similar effects were noted in Canada, where Police have walked back the argument that a taser is a replacement for a firearm:
When the RCMP unveiled plans to equip its Alberta detachments with Tasers in 2002, Sgt. Steve Gleboff told reporters “what we’re trying to do is eliminate the necessity to shoot somebody.” […] That expectation was wrong, according to the man who trains Calgary police officers to use Tasers. “Use of force experts across Canada right now, we’re kind of shaking our heads going, ‘How did we give the impression to the lay public or the media that Tasers were ever supposed to be a replacement for lethal force?'” said Staff Sgt. Chris Butler. “They were another use-of-force tool in the same regard as the baton, the O.C. spray. Just another tool.”
Given this position — that the taser is not a replacement for a firearm, but an alternative to OC spray and batons — it is clear that wider deployment of a more effective weapon over and above those existing tools, where the ultimate tactical option of firearms does not already exist, means the escalation of violence, not its de-escalation, as a matter of policy.
The limited deployment of firearms is an important difference between New Zealand and the jurisdictions for which good data is available (in Australia and North America), that make these comparisons uncertain. (In the UK, which would be a better comparison, there are strong calls for similar policy.) Given this difference, we may have little to fear — it may be that the deployment of tasers forestalls the routine arming of frontline police for five or 10 or more years longer than it otherwise would have occurred. But as someone pointed out to me on Twitter, the avoidance of hypothetical violence by the application of actual violence also is not de-escalation: you can’t defend giving the Police machine guns on the basis that you have declined to give them tanks as well. The onus is on the Police to demonstrate that their decision to deploy tasers across the force will reduce the use of firearms, and will also be accompanied by more rigorous training and oversight to prevent abuse, and to limit excessive use on the groups who already bear the heaviest burden of Police violence.