Were the police too ready to use Taser stun guns when they encountered resistance as they tried to clear barricades from the illegal Travellers' site at Dale Farm? Certainly they were used very early in the confrontations with protesters.
The authorities have insisted that the 50,000-volt electric guns were used by two officers threatened with serious violence. But their use in the management of public disorder for the first time in the UK marks a departure, and the Home Office should investigate the incident.
Guidelines from the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) say the diverse nature of policing operations means it is not possible to provide a definitive list of circumstances where Tasers may be used. But Acpo insists that the stun guns, which induce involuntary muscle contractions that cause temporary incapacitation, should only be used where circumstances are "proportionate, lawful, appropriate, necessary and non-discriminate".
Arguably, crowd control is not such a circumstance. In a melee, it is too easy to hit the wrong person. Not only are Tasers far less accurate than guns. There are also concerns about where the weapon should be aimed. Since 2009 the manufacturer has revised its guidelines, warning against aiming at the chest area after claims that the shock could cause heart attacks in drug-users or those genetically pre-disposed to heart disease. Concerns have also been raised after a study claimed that 60 per cent of cases of Taser use in the US did not meet the criteria recommended by experts to justify use of the weapons.
Until now, the British police appear to have exercised more care. In fairness, they faced considerable violence at Dale Farm: protesters hurled concrete blocks and hit officers with spades, planks and iron bars. And it may be that such violent incidents justified a point-blank Taser response from the police. But the use of such a potentially lethal weapon should not go unscrutinised. The Independent Police Complaints Commission recently introduced rules requiring that any complaints about Tasers should go to the police watchdog. They, or officials at the Home Office, should examine their use at Dale Farm.