Chris Marshall: Dalian Atkinson's death reignites Tasers debate

The death of former footballer Dalian Atkinson has once again led to concerns being raised about the use of Tasers.

Tributes to Dalian Atkinson who was tasered by police and shortly died afterwards. Picture: SWNS
Tributes to Dalian Atkinson who was tasered by police and shortly died afterwards. Picture: SWNS

The ex-Aston Villa striker died around 90 minutes after officers from West Mercia Police used the weapon when attending a disturbance at his father’s home in Telford, Shropshire, in the early hours of Monday morning.

While the full details of the incident are now being investigated by a police watchdog, what those officers could not have known was that Atkinson had been battling kidney problems and is said to have had a weak heart.

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While Tasers are more likely to save lives (the manufacturer estimates more than 170,000 worldwide), studies have pointed to risks, particularly for those with underlying health conditions.

A report in the medical journal Circulation, published in 2012, said electrical shocks from Tasers could set off irregular heart rhythms leading to cardiac arrest.

Atkinson’s death follows that of Spencer Beynon, a former soldier who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan and had suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.

He was shot with a stun gun in June after he stabbed a dog and then himself.

And last October an inquest jury ruled that a 50,000-volt police Taser was the “most likely” cause of death of Andrew Pimlott, 32, who had poured petrol over himself before he was Tasered in Plymouth.

Calum Macleod, vice-chairman of the Police Federation of England and Wales, yesterday said his members had to be “able to run towards danger” and deal with situations “that arise in the blink of an eye”.

Most would agree that police officers who are placed in potentially life-threatening situations cannot be expected to consider a person’s pre-existing health conditions before firing their Taser.

But there is now a growing body of medical evidence – not to mention real-life incidents – to suggest police forces should, at the very least, be re-considering how Tasers are deployed.

In Scotland, only firearms officers, of which there are currently around 275 on active duty, carry Tasers.

While Tasers were fired a total of 19 times by West Mercia Police in 2015 and 1,730 times across England and Wales as a whole, the corresponding figure for Scotland was two.

Just as we should be rightly cautious about our police forces increasing their number of armed officers, so too should we remain vigilant about the use of Tasers.

Last year the Scottish Police Federation called for Tasers to be put in every patrol car following a spate of attacks on its officers.

It is argued that merely drawing a Taser (they are only discharged in around 20 per cent of cases in England and Wales) would be enough to diffuse most violent situations.

But with question marks over the use of the weapons, now is not the time to rush into a national roll out.

In England and Wales, the use of Tasers has grown steadily in recent years, with around one in ten officers now carrying them.

It’s inevitable that as more officers are equipped with the weapon, there will be more incidents where they are fired.

The currently policy in Scotland of allowing only armed officers – who are constantly aware of the responsibility their weapons bring – to carry Tasers seems sound.