Police begin patrols with Taser stun gun despite concerns over safety

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The Independent Online

British police officers were armed with electric stun guns for the first time yesterday, amid claims that they are deadly weapons that have not been properly tested.

British police officers were armed with electric stun guns for the first time yesterday, amid claims that they are deadly weapons that have not been properly tested.

In a year-long trial, specialist firearms officers from five police forces are being equipped with Tasers, a handheld weapon designed to incapacitate a suspect with a high-powered electric charge. Human rights groups, however, have expressed concern about their use, particularly after two deaths in America allegedly related to their use.

But Paul Acres, the Hertfordshire Chief Constable and a spokesman for the Association of Chief Police Officers, insisted Tasers were safe to use. The stun gun, shaped like a pistol, fires barb-tipped darts up to seven metres (21ft) to deliver a high-voltage shock. It is one of the new range of "less lethal" weapons being used by police to deal with violent and armed suspects without having to use conventional firearms.

Speaking at the launch of the weapons in Northampton, Mr Acres said: "There is no evidence of any direct link between the use of Tasers and deaths but there have been occasions when people who have been 'Tasered' have died. But there have been extenuating circumstances. This has been carefully assessed by the Department of Science and Technology [in the US] and they feel it is safe for us to go for this test.

"Any weapon can be lethal. This is a less lethal option ... there is a risk of using it or any weapon but it's a question of taking a responsible approach to the use of it."

Trained officers from Lincolnshire Police and their counterparts in London, Northamptonshire, North Wales and Thames Valley forces will be given the M26 advanced Taser. The US-made weapon, which costs £350, is pointed at a suspect – usually their torso – and works by discharging 50,000 volts for up to five seconds.

The charge causes a loss of some voluntary muscle control, resulting in a person falling to the ground or "freezing" on the spot. Sergeant Simon Williams, a firearms trainer with Northamptonshire Police, described the effect of the weapon, which he has tested.

"It's extremely painful. Initially, I wasn't able to carry out any further tasks at that particular time," he said.

"But that was only as long as the application of the Taser. It was a two-second discharge and I suffered no injury and no long-term effects as far as I know of at this time."

But Robert Parker, Amnesty International UK's arms campaigner, said: "The medical effects of Tasers have not been independently tested. Until they are proven safe, they must be treated as lethal weapons."

He added: "Tasers can easily be abused. Amnesty International has serious concerns about the use of a device which works by inflicting intolerable pain on people."