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Dalian Atkinson was black and mentally ill – we shouldn't be surprised he was Tasered to death

Black people are three times more likely to have a Taser used on them, while black men are 17 times more likely to suffer from psychotic illnesses and so face an increased risk of having the weapon discharged against them by police

Wail Qasim
Wednesday 17 August 2016 12:09 BST
Dalian Atkinson should be remembered for his sporting achievements, not his tragic death
Dalian Atkinson should be remembered for his sporting achievements, not his tragic death (Reuters)

Little more than a week after Black Lives Matter UK held high profile protests across the country to highlight the problem of black deaths following contact with the police, Dalian Atkinson has died in another such incident. He should be remembered for his career as a striker at Aston Villa, his 23 goals for them and the successes in his life. But the Shropshire lad will now more likely be remembered as having been killed when police used a Taser to subdue him.

These weapons, which are capable of producing 50,000 volt shocks, are often described as either ‘non-lethal’ or, slightly more honestly, ‘less-lethal’. The stun gun was given to police officers in 2003 and has since been deployed with increasing regularity. Though it has been marketed as an alternative to police using firearms, since 2007 many normal officers without specialist firearms training have been allowed to carry the weapon during their patrols. In 2015 police in England and Wales used a Taser, whether to threaten or actually discharge it, a total 10,329 times.

Dalian Atkinson eye witness describes police 'kicking' ex-footballer

Many suggest that by comparison deaths resulting from Tasers are rare. But Dalian Atkinson is by no means the first fatality. According to The Guardian at least 10 others have died over the last decade in England and Wales following incidents where a Taser was used. In 2013 Jordan Begley suffered cardiac arrest after a police officer shot him with a Taser for 9 seconds. An inquest found last year that the use of the weapon contributed to his death. Just two months ago an ex-soldier named Spencer Beynon died after being Tasered by police in Llanelli. The question is then how many deaths are we willing to accept before questioning their increasing availability?

The problem isn’t just with the weapons though. It’s also with those willing to use them. Black people in this country are three times more likely than their white counterparts to have a Taser used on them. Whilst we only make up around 4 per cent of the population we accounted for around 12 per cent of 36,000 cases between 2010 and 2015. This disproportionately can’t be blamed on the Taser, there must be a prejudice that fuels officers’ use of it.

What is most concerning about the death of Dalian Atkinson is how witnesses and family have conveyed his level of distress during the incident. Atkinson’s brother, Kenroy said of him that “My brother had lost it. He was in a manic state and depressed - out of his mind and ranting.” Describing the family’s devastation, Kenroy again reiterated that “[Dalian] was not in his right mind”.

A person’s mental health is a huge factor in how likely it is for police to use a Taser on them. It has been found that 67 per cent of people who have been subject to a discharge of the stun gun suffer from mental illness. Where people are in need of care and treatment, police officers are turning to the weapons they have been armed with instead. Britain generally suffers a mental health crisis, but black men are 17 times more likely to suffer from psychotic illnesses and so face an even greater risk when policing with deadly weapons is a first response to distressed people in public.

Britain also suffers a crisis of racist policing. Black people are twice as likely to die in police custody or following contact with the police than white people. These cases represent examples where both so-called lethal and non-lethal weapons and force were used – yet all ended in a fatality and not a single police conviction. Impunity for police officers involved in killings has proven itself to be a fatal policy no matter how safe their weapons supposedly are.

If we are to prevent further deaths we have to question racist state violence, as well as the tools it uses.

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