A day after Mr Atkinson’s death raised concerns about police Taser use, Calum Macleod, the federation’s vice-chairman, insisted officers still needed greater access to the weapons, and linked the need for them to declining police numbers under the Tory Government.
Mr Macleod, whose organisation represents 122,0000 rank-and-file officers, told The Independent: “This was a tragic incident. Our condolences are with the family.
“But we cannot make judgements in haste based on a single incident. We need to look at the wider public safety picture. There is a wider conversation to be had about Tasers in relation to public security, officer safety and the reduction in capability to respond to incidents through lack of numbers.
“We have 20,000 fewer police officers now than in 2010. There is a vulnerability that there hasn’t been historically, due to numbers. The ability to protect the public with officer numbers falling needs to be maintained.”
During the now Prime Minister Theresa May’s time as Home Secretary, force budgets were cut and officer numbers fell 14 per cent from 143,769 in 2009 to 124,066 in March 2016. But the Government has insisted falling overall crime numbers show that reforms have allowed the police to do more with less.
Mr Macleod, however, said one consequence of falling police numbers is that many forces have ditched the practice of patrolling in pairs, leaving officers to go out alone and causing some to feel increasingly insecure. He said: “They don’t feel as secure because of the decline in numbers, because of the assaults they are facing on a daily basis – there were 23,000 assaults on police officers last year.”
Currently chief constables decide how many members of their force will be allowed to carry Tasers, and nationwide only about 10 per cent of officers currently carry them. But last year the board of the Police Federation voted unanimously to demand that any officer be allowed to have a Taser if they wanted one and if they agreed to be trained in how to use it appropriately.
The death of Mr Atkinson, which followed the Taser-linked death in June of former soldier Spencer Beynon, has led to renewed concern about the use of a weapon that was fired 1,921 times in England and Wales last year. The Liberal Democrat former health minister Norman Lamb called for an “urgent and fundamental” review of police Taser use.
Matilda MacAttram, the director of the human rights campaign group Black Mental Health UK, called the “routine” use of Tasers on those known or suspected to have mental health problems “a human rights abuse”, and told The Independent: “If you are black and living in England, the likelihood of you being Tasered is off the scale compared to the rest of the population.”
Mr Macleod, however, said officers received intensive training before they were allowed to use Tasers. He added that although there was a 2 per cent rise in the number of incidents involving a Taser in 2015, officers stopped short of actually firing their weapon on more than 80 per cent of those occasions. Tasers were fired in 19 per cent of incidents where the weapon was drawn, a drop in 3 per cent from 2014.
Despite the growing controversy over Tasers, Mr Macleod said: “Our position remains the same. We are not saying every officer should have a Taser, but we are saying those who would appreciate the ability to use one should be given that ability.”
He added: “Violent crime is rising, the carrying of knives is rising, there is a greater threat from terrorism. Police need to have the capability to use a Taser in a safe and justifiable manner.
“All officers are asking for is to retain the ability to protect the public in an effective manner, to be able to run towards danger when everybody else is running away. They need the tools to do the job.”