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Black people are three times more likely have a Taser used against them by police than white people, according to figures that have raised the alarm among race relations campaigners.
Home Office data revealed that in more than 12% of about 36,000 cases between 2010 and 2015, the person against whom Tasers were used was black and of African-Caribbean origin or of mixed white and African-Caribbean origin. Black people make up about 4% of the population.
Warning of a breakdown of trust between police and black communities, the Labour MP Chuka Umunna called on the home secretary to order an immediate investigation into Taser use, as activists said the figures heralded a return of institutionalised racism.
According to data released to the BBC after a freedom of information request, Tasers were used – meaning they were drawn, aimed or fired – by police 38,135 times between 2010 and 2015. However, in 80% of cases the weapon was not discharged.
As well as disproportionate use against black people, the figures also showed a rise in the use of Tasers against children. The devices were used 522 times against people under the age of 18 last year, compared to 349 times in 2010. There were 158 cases last year involving children under 16, the figures showed.
In one case in Hampshire, a police officer removed his Taser from its holster in an incident involving a nine-year-old boy. In another, a Taser was drawn against a 91-year-old man, according to the Home Office figures. However, Suffolk police said they could find no record of it.
Responding to the racial breakdown, Lee Jasper, a former director of policing and equalities for London, warned of escalating tensions between police and minority communities. Recent research by Release had shown they were disproportionately targeted in drug prosecutions, he said.
“When you take these figures in context, the conclusion that you come to is that there is a resurgence in systemic, institutionalised racism in the police service, and within the Met police in particular,” Jasper said. “All we need is a bit of hot weather and one inappropriate stop and search or death in custody and we could be looking at a return to [the riots of] 2011.”
A spokesman for the Campaign Against Police and State Violence said it was clear that the police have a problem with black people. The group has conducted research which showed the Met did not uphold any of 240 complaints of racism against its officers last year.
The spokesman said: “This racial bias cannot be blamed on individual rotten apples, the consistency of disproportionate racist outcomes means that the entire barrel is suspect. Even the head of the Metropolitan Black Police Association last year stated that she believed the police are institutionally racist.
“It’s also important to remember that police usage of Tasers in England have caused a number of fatalities, which means the police are disproportionately targeting black people with potentially lethal force.”
Defending the figures, Dep Asst Comm Neil Basu claimed the majority of the incidents did not involve the use of force. However, he admitted he couldn’t account for the disproportionality of Taser use. “Only three types of the seven uses of Taser actually involve applying force. In 80% of situations it’s never even used and it stops the violence there and then,” he said.
Basu, the National Police Chiefs’ Council spokesman on Tasers, said officers had “world-class training” and Tasers were only used in situations “where there is violence or there is impending violence”.
“I don’t think policing has been surprised by disproportionality in the criminal justice system for many years. Explaining it is a different matter,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. “I don’t think it’s a simple equation about colour because if you are Asian, like me, you are less likely to be subject to a Taser than a white person.”
But Umunna, one of Westminster’s most prominent black politicians, said he was extremely concerned about the data. “In order to ensure we maintain trust in the police it’s absolutely essential the home secretary orders an immediate investigation to get to the bottom of the disproportionality of Taser incidents involving black people,” he said.
“The Home Office has some very serious questions to answer on the data it releases. It releases Taser data on an annual basis but has, it seems, deliberately withheld details regarding the ethnicity, age and gender of those involved in these incidents.”
The latest figures come a year after Theresa May ordered an in-depth review of the use of force by police, amid particular concerns that physical restraint and Tasers were being used against mentally distressed people.
At the time she cited evidence from the London assembly that showed up to 30% of people Tasered by the Metropolitan police were emotionally or mentally distressed, and 50% were from black or other minority ethnic backgrounds.
As the use of the stun guns steadily grows, opinions about their value remain divided. The Home Office describes them as “an important tactical option to help specially trained police officers resolve potentially violent situations safely”.
In February, the Police Federation voted for all uniformed officers to be issued with Tasers. However, Amnesty International says they are a potentially lethal weapon and should be withdrawn from use by non-specialist firearms officers.
Press Association contributed to this report.
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