Taser and Torture

This BLOG post is a direct response to a piece that appeared in the Guardian, entitled Tasers have no place in mental health care by Matilda MacATTRAM, Director of Black Mental Health UK. Before going further, I’d encourage you to read the whole piece for yourself. The debate in the House of Commons did include two amendments by MPs about Taser: Charles WALKER MP called for greater scrutiny through improved reporting; Normal LAMB MP (former minister of state for mental health) called for an outright ban on the use of ‘electro-conductive devices’ on psychaitric wards. I think the (then) policing minister, Mike PENNING MP, more or less summed up my own position: that we would all like to live in a world where the police are not called to inpatient psychiatric wards and that even if they were, that it would not be necessary to use a device like taser. But I don’t police the world I want to live in; I police the world I do live in and mental health wards can be extremely violent and dangerous places that patients and staff alike will often say feel unsafe.

A couple of months ago, a mental health nurse was murdered by a patient in a Croydon mental health unit. In 2014, a mental health nursing assistant was murdered by a patient in Gloucester after he returned from authorised leave with a ten-inch kitchen knife. The last time the NHS published their assault figures, we learned that around 70% of the 67,000+ assaults which were reported occured within the mental health sector – we know that many of those were assaults occasioning actual or grievous bodily harm. So the first thing we need to do is – yet again – debunk the myths that surround the nature of the relationship between mental ill-health and crime.


MacATTRAM writes –

“What we seeing [sic] is a health service relying on a forensic solution to meet clinical need, and yet policing really has no place in mental healthcare.”

WOW! – I hardly know where to start at the naivety of this statement. It is explicitly written in to our laws that policing has a place in mental health care … the Mental Health Act 1983 affords various powers to the police and mental health professionals but we expressly afford the police some powers of their own that even psychiatrists and mental health nurses cannot exercise – section 136 MHA. The criminal justice system is the only route to some patients being detained under certain kinds of orders of the Mental Health Act and guess who makes decisions to send people in to the criminal justice system? That will be the police. So it is neither true, nor realistic to make this claim.

The ‘forensic solution / clinical need’ statement needs pulling apart too before we can get on to any role that Taser should or should not play. I admit tor remaining unclear as to what this means, precisely. But if we are saying that all interventions on mental health wards around aggressive or resistant behaviours are clinical interventions, then this is also far from the accurate. Many patients who have offended even whilst detained under the MHA in hospital are found, in law, fully responsible for their actions and convicted. For example, when Ryan MATTHEWS appeared in court in December 2014 accused of the murder of healthcare assistant Sharon WALL, he pleaded guilty and was imprisoned – there was nothing ‘clinical’ about his attack. Imagine – hypothetically – that a police officer was standing there, in possession of a Taser: justified to use it?

More widely on crime and mental health, research referred to in the NICE Guidelines (NG10) on Violence (2015) refers to the figure above 90% for the proportion of people mental health problems who offend whose behaviour does not directly emerge because of their mental health condition. So where any deployment of Taser is being considered by a police officer in the context of a serious offence in progress or serious risk to life, it would remain true that most people could – at least in theory – be held responsible in law for their actions and that this is not a ‘clinical’ intervention, but a crime prevention intervention.


I’ve heard the claim before about Taser amounting torture so I decided this time to actually look it up.  We need to refer to the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and then to the 39th session of the UN’s Commit Against Torture, which met in 2007. The document of the 39th session is 325 pages long and I’ve done my best to read it all: I can only see one reference to Taser and it comes on p40. It is important to understand the context of the following comment: it is a specific reaction to the Committee learning that Taser has been issued to certain members of the various Portuguese police services –

“The Committee is deeply concerned about the recent purchase by the State Party of electric “Taser X26” weapons for distribution to [the Portuguese Police]. The committee is concerned that these weapons cause severe pain constituting a form of torture, and that in some cases it may even cause death, as recent developments have shown.

The State party should consider relinquishing the use of electric “Taser X26” weapons, the impact of which on the physical or mental state of targeted persons would appear to violate articles 1 and 16 of the Convention.”

I will give advance notice of what may appear to some to be imminent pedantry in what I’m about to say, but I think these are important points to make –

  • What does the UN Convention on the Prohibition of Torture Actually say? – the term “torture” means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.
  • What did the UN actually say about Taser? – it didn’t say “Use of Taser amounts to torture” in a general proclaimation. They said they are ‘concerned it may’ … for my mind, this is about proportionality in any given case and about whether more widespread issueing of the equipment means there will be more likelihood of cases where its use is not legally justified?  There are clues in this direction elsewhere in the UN’s work because they revisited this in 2013 when the Dutch Police were considering a pilot of these devices whereby they would issue them to all police officers in a certain area.
  • The Netherlands, 2013 – whilst expressing their reservations again, the Committee did not call for total relinquishment of taser merely calling instead for the Dutch to refrain from ‘flat distribution’ to all police officers. They hoped that special protocols would be agreed for those who did carry the devices and that they would only be used as an alternative to lethal weapons. But torture is torture, right? – there can be no exceptions to that rule and there is no defence under the Convention so if they thought taser were inherently tortuous, they’d call for a complete ban.  What must we infer from the fact they didn’t?!

Presumably, if critics like Matilda MacAttram are correct that its use amounts to torture, then it’s torture whether used by a limited number of specially trained officers or by any officer who is carrying it because everyone does.  The former approach is the current UK deployment model – most officers do not carry a conducted energy device (CED, the preferred term); whereas in the US, many police departments have issued this device to all frontline patrol officers.


Section 134 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 is our domestic law and creates a criminal offence of torture, punishable by imprisonment. During one CAT document on UK progress against torture, the Committee does express regret that UK law affords a defence to any allegation of torture, something the UN says should be removed.  UK law states that –

A public official or person acting in an official capacity, whatever his nationality, commits the offence of torture if in the United Kingdom or elsewhere he intentionally inflicts severe pain or suffering on another in the performance or purported performance of his official duties.

In addition to another offence (sub-section 2 of s134) of someone committing torture if they inflict severe pain or suffering an another at the instigation of a public official, the defence I referred to is in sub-section 4 of s134 – and this is where I breathed a sigh of relief , because it “shall be a defence for a person charged with an offence under this section in respect of any conduct of his to prove that he had lawful authority, justification or excuse for that conduct. For the purposes of this section ‘lawful authority, justification or excuse’ means … lawful authority, justification or excuse under the law of the part of the United Kingdom where it was inflicted.”

My sigh of relief was because I have inflicted severe pain or suffering on others in the course of my duties: I have repeatedly struck people with batons; I have restrained people for hours on end in hospitals to stop them hurting themselves; and used public order shields to strike people repeatedly and pin them against walls – thus allowing my colleague to repeatedly baton a large knife from the grasp of a man who seemed hell-bent on killing us all. But in those contexts I was acting lawfully, tasked as I had been with arresting or detaining people under other laws, like the Police and Criminal Evidence Act or the Mental Health Act. I have also been in charge of several operations where Taser has been deployed against extremely violent and sometimes very vulnerable people.


Matilda MacATTRAM is quite to highlight that Taser was first introduced in the UK for authorised firearms officers, in order to give them a ‘less lethal alternative’ to guns. The wider distribution of the device is attributable to subsequent decisions to issue Taser to officers who do not routinely carry firearms and this is where it gets controversial for some. Is Taser the second-highest use of force, ranking just below firearms and above the use of batons or incapacitant spray? – no, it’s not. In terms of the impact and after effects, Taser can be less injurious to those targeted than a baton; it can also be effectively operated from a greater distance and at less risk to the officer and third-parties.

So Taser equipped officers are often deployed, for example, to incidents where people are reported to be carrying or threatening the use of knives and most of the time, those officers do not draw their Taser – it happened only very rarely. Both of the homicides of mental health professionals, referred to above, were committed with large knives. To effectively use a police baton on someone with a knife, you have to get close enough to allow yourself to be stabbed: with Taser that is not the case. It is also worth bearing in mind, that in terms of self-defence, none of us have to take any risks whatsoever with our own safety before being legally allowed to defend ourselves, pre-emptively, if necessary. As the greatest threats to the safety of police officers arises not from guns but from knives, it seems inevitable that Taser would be considered as having a role a wider role than those situations where the police would be thinking of pointing a gun at someone. Unless, of course, someone has a better idea for how we stop someone opening up their own neck with a bread knife, without getting close enough to be stabbed?!

What went unmentioned in Matilda’s article is that the vast majority of time that Taser is ‘used’, this merely means it is removed from the holster and / or pointed – it is not normally discharged at the subject. And let’s be clear, the UN appears to have stopped short of saying, “Use of Taser is torture”, because of the remarks they subsequently made about the Dutch pilot in 2013 and because of what they have not said. These later remarks indicate that comments made in 2007 appear to have been clarified and updated – quite rightly given the majority of its ‘use’ sees no pain or suffering whatsoever inflicted on the target and they have never at any stage said that all use of taser should be banned.  So is it torture or not? – given they argue there is never a defence to torture, you have to conclude not all use of taser is torture.  So we should stop saying it.

I can only summarise: mental health wards can be places of extremely serious violence, including the use and threatened use of weapons and including the deaths and serious injury of mental health professionals – in the majority of those cases, there will be no legal barrier to the full investigation and prosecution of those who have injured NHS staff, even whilst unwell. The distinction that people are patients not criminals is simplistic to say the least, if not vacuous: nothing at all in the law or real life prevents a patient being a criminal and vice versa.  As such, parity of esteem has to work both ways: if we accept that the police may be running in to an A&E department – where assault rates are actually far lower – why would we suggest that colleagues working in mental health services are entitled to any less protection from their police service when they’re being attacked and why would we seek to totally prohibit officers from using equipment that will limit injury and better ensure their own safety as well as everyone else’s?

I admit – I don’t even begin to understand.

Winner of the President’s Medal,
the Royal College of Psychiatrists.

Winner of the Mind Digital Media Award


All opinions expressed are my own – they do not represent the views of any organisation.
(c) Michael Brown, 2019

I try to keep this blog up to date, but inevitably over time, amendments to the law as well as court rulings and other findings from inquests and complaints processes mean it is difficult to ensure all the articles and pages remain current.  Please ensure you check all legal issues in particular and take appropriate professional advice where necessary.

Government legislation website – http://www.legislation.gov.uk


17 thoughts on “Taser and Torture

  1. Very good article

    Taser use should be policed and petmitted by the police where they feel it’s use is necessary. Where ever that may be
    Mental health units included
    The mentally ill can be violent and if that occurs in mental health wards their are two victims the patient who lives with the consequences of wgT they have done
    Violence occurs on hospital just like it occurs elsewhere in society
    Everyone has the right to be protected
    Mental health staff have that right and si do other users of the service

  2. Great summary. Had it patiently explained to me quite how bad a baton strike is compared with Taser, In a ideal world patients wouldn’t have access to knives etc, but not only do staff need protecting, but other patients and indeed patients from themselves. Would be strange if police were unable to use resources that they can use if necessary in all other locations to keep people safe.

  3. Long on decontextualised facts. Short on common sense. And the only compassion is self-directed.

    Yes, there are (more or less) precise legal definitions of torture. Including the UN one you cite. But all of us know that when police taser an already restrained and harmless person, it is torture – regardless of what certain statutes might say about it.

    You might as well refer to another traditional police ‘compliance’ tool and ask whether the use of a phone book is torture. Well, no. Not if you’re looking up a phone number with it.

    But the most contemptible thing about this post is the constant harping on the alleged violence of the mentally ill. Presumably you know enough basic facts about mental illness to know that the mentally ill are no more likely to commit violence against others than anyone else is. You could just as easily have cited grisly anecdotes about domestic violence to suggest that suburban homes are so dangerous that public officials required to enter them should all be armed. And that’s precisely what a ‘law and order’ politician would have done when calling for more ‘police’ (i.e. state) power to employ violence upon citizens.

    Those labelled with a mental illness are far more likely to suffer violence from others than commit it. Disproportionately that violence is inflicted by officials and, when those officials are cops, it’s all too often fatal. These days it’s often done with tasers.

    So lets contextualise, shall we?

    Just as it’s true to say that more serious assaults (both absolutely and proportionately) take place in family homes than in mental hospitals it’s also true to say that far more mentally ill people are killed by police than others are killed by mentally ill people while in the presence of police. So when it comes to rolling out police tasers for potential use against the mentally ill you can’t justify it with bogus utilitarian arguments about saving lives. It’s more likely to cost lives than save them.

    If you compare it with use of guns and batons it looks better (should Simon Harwood have tasered Ian Tomlinson instead?). But only if you accept the implicit assumption that other forms of violence are the only viable alternative to tasers and having a taser (with all the accompanying propaganda justifying its use) doesn’t reduce the police threshold for employing violence. Neither of those assumptions ring true to me. What do you think?

    Like the ‘ticking bomb’ justification for torture, your ‘knife to the neck’ justification for tasers might make for good (i.e. bad) TV but it’s not something your average taser-armed cop is going to see in a career of policing. However he will have plenty of other opportunities to deploy his little toy, with varying degrees of legality and very little chance of sanction for misuse.

    I’m assuming that you come into contact with enough mentally ill people to know how damaging the stigmatising stereotypes some people promote about them are. Yet you have no qualms about flogging misleading myths about their dangerousness in order to justify extreme measures by police.
    Like I said. All compassion here is self-directed.

    1. I very long rant with very little point,if any, and with nothing to support it. I think you’re trying to say police will use it to torture patients and because it will rarely be used it should never be an option. I would argue that this exactly why it should be an option, after all police should only be called in serious incidents anyway.

      Oh and your point about MH Cop ‘flogging misleading myths’ is so wrong as to be laughable. You clearly not read all his previous blogs. Sadly you clearly have and issue with police as an organisation and are unable to see past that to allow for a reasoned debate.

      1. As it happens I do have an issue with police, but not as an organisation or as individuals but as a culture. And anyone with even a passing familiarity with police culture and concerns about justice, public service integrity or institutionalised bigotry would also have such issues.

        And while your summary of my arguments is in the right general direction you don’t win the kewpie doll.

        My concern is that historically and across cultures there has been ongoing, persistent problems with police abuse of their powers – up to and including torture and murder – with very little accountability for the perpetrators (e.g. not one cop in the UK or Australia has ever been convicted of unlawful killing while on duty). I don’t see handing police new tools with abundant potential for such abuse without first addressing the elephant in the room as being a constructive approach. And police use of tasers in the US and Australia (including, for example, over 500 US police taser related deaths in the decade to 2011) provides firm grounds for my concerns.

        I’ve read over a dozen posts on this blog now and while there’s lip service to evidence based mental health care there is all too often resort to stigmatising myths (as shown in this post) if it serves the poster’s arguments. A whole lying and dissembling industry has sprung up around tasers, funded primarily by Taser International of course, including the bullshit pseudoscience of ‘excited delirium’ which is promoted on this blog. It flies in the face of science and evidence and is obviously designed to deflect responsibility for police deaths in custody away from cops and TI, generally onto the deceased victims.

        Yes, police should only be called to serious incidents. And they shouldn’t abuse their powers, particularly in regards to vulnerable minorities. But to paraphrase the OP – I don’t deal with the world I want to live in; I deal with the world I do live in.

  4. Cabrogal, do you look at things through the prism of your own emotions and make an angry post in response? At no point has Michael said people with mental illness commit more violent acts than others. I know for a fact he has written the true facts of their vulnerability in several other blogs. I believe he is referring to times when violent acts do occur and the police are summoned. If you’re saying that serious violence by people with mental illness never occurs, then that is just plain nonsense. I have had colleagues nearly killed by patients, was that false? Were my black eyes, damaged back and scarred arm all done somewhere else? Taser is sometimes necessary, sadly

    1. So Cabrogal, serious violence is never committed by people with mental illness?

      If that’s what you think I wrote I can only conclude you are reading impaired.

      During your next remedial reading class perhaps you should ask the tutor what “straw man fallacy” means.

  5. Abuse of power can occur in any institution and anyone anywhere can be an abuser. You look at things through the prism of your own emotions and respond in kind, Cabrogal and you never have much constructive to offer.

    1. I absolutely agree with your statement about abuse of power Dan.

      Now tell me. If you’ve got an institution with a long, successful history of protecting itself and its members from the consequences of committing abuses such as torture and unlawful killing – aided and abetted by a major multinational corporation – why on earth would you provide them with more devices that can be so abused (which just happen to be manufactured by said corporation)?

      Your very pertinent point about the nature of institutional and individual abuse would seem to argue strongly against it.

  6. Cabrogal,

    End of the day: I can only say things as I see them, having taken a reasonable amount of effort to try and understand. I’m terribly sorry that I’m not of your intellectual calibre or producing evidence based research that satisfies you – it’s a BLOG and you should start to get over it. It’s becoming quite wearisome that your main reaction to things you don’t agree with is to get personal with me and misrepresent what I’ve said.

    Some examples –

    1. In almost five years of doing this blog I’ve don’t think I’ve ever raised (the bullshit issue of) ‘excited delirium’ – which I’m told is more recently re-braded as acute behavioural disturbance and / or disorder, depending on which medical organisation you work for – without going out of my way to acknowledge the views that exist on the debate. if I ever did raise it without doing so, it’s because there are multiple substantive posts on the topic that do acknowledge the debate. But in furtherance of the idea of bringing up this topic despite your earnest and eloquent objections, I was in a room for two hours this morning with various forensic physicians and psychiatrists who were – yet again – having the debate whilst the rest of us watched. It’s almost as if they didn’t realise you’ve settled the matter.

    2. You say ‘those with mental illness are far more likely to suffer violence from others than commit it’. There are criminologists who’ve looked at this in peer reviewed studies and who disagree with you.

    3. You say, ‘those with mental health problems are no more likely to commit violence against others than anyone else is’ – again, there are academics in forensic mental health who disagree with you. These are not academics in policing who are building conspiracy theories to justify torturing the vulnerable: academics in psychiatry who seem to have international research reputations.

    4. You object to the ‘knife to the neck’ analogy: I know of at least five such incidents in the last few years, two of which were examined by those who investigate the police following deaths. I’m not going out of my way to look for examples, these are just those I’ve stumbled across from colleagues or media reports. Your all-too-easy dismissal of such incidents just betrays the lack of credible experience you have in dealing with the things officers are obliged to respond to. And the knife to the neck incident is also a metaphor for serious and life-threatening incidents of self-harm which I’ve multiple professional experiences of handling. They’re far from being as a rare as you think. Cliched television is often like that for a reason.

    Torture is a legal concept: it therefore requires a legal definition – behaviour that does not fit that definition is not torture. It should hardly need saying because that’s how legalism works and it is what has increasingly protected vulnerable people from the abuses of psychiatrists and other physicians that you seem all too inclined to omit from your critique of state abuse. Ironic, given how much the mental health system relies upon law enforcement to do the dirty work of coercion on its behalf.

    1. I was in a room for two hours this morning with various forensic physicians and psychiatrists who were – yet again – having the debate whilst the rest of us watched. It’s almost as if they didn’t realise you’ve settled the matter.

      If you’re talking about discussion of ED, of course it’s not ‘settled’. For the same reason that the question of human induced climate change isn’t ‘settled’ and why it took half a century for the links between smoking and cancer to be ‘settled’. Because despite the weight of evidence and scientific consensus being overwhelmingly on one side of the issue there are powerful and well funded vested interests who don’t want it to be ‘settled’.

      Nor will it be settled for as long as over 1/3rd of US MEs admit that fear of litigation by Taser International would influence their reports on taser deaths. As long as TI spends millions every year ‘educating’ ERs about ED. And as long as the judicial system needs to find reasons to acquit police who kill people while on duty – no matter how preposterous those reasons may be. Unless a better brand of whitewash comes along.

      You say ‘those with mental illness are far more likely to suffer violence from others than commit it’. There are criminologists who’ve looked at this in peer reviewed studies and who disagree with you.

      I’d be very interested in any references you can provide for such studies. Their reception must have been interesting considering how wildly out of step with all the other research they are. Even E Fuller Torrey – a psychiatrist funded by the Stanley Foundation to highlight alleged links between mental illness and violence – concedes that the mentally ill are twenty-five times more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violence.

      Although it can be hard to compare studies (different subsets of the mentally ill, different measures and definitions of ‘violence’) those that examine violence against the mentally ill typically find the risk to be 10-40% per year while those that look at violence by the mentally ill find it to be less than 5% over five years.

      You object to the ‘knife to the neck’ analogy: I know of at least five such incidents in the last few years, two of which were examined by those who investigate the police following deaths. I’m not going out of my way to look for examples, these are just those I’ve stumbled across from colleagues or media reports.

      Let’s do the math then shall we?

      As we’re working with a far from complete data set I’ll be very generous to your argument with my estimates. If you think I’m insufficiently generous just say so and I’ll adjust accordingly to see if it makes a qualitative difference.

      I’ll start by assuming your ‘stumbles’ missed 90% of the UK’s ‘knife-to-neck (K2N)’ taser incidents in the eight years since they were widely rolled out and that there have been not five but fifty such cases since 2008. There are currently about 14,000 taser armed UK cops but that number has risen sharply in recent years, so let’s further assume that since 2008 the average number of UK cops equipped with tasers has been closer to 5,000.

      If 5,000 cops encounter 50 K2Ns in 8 years you can expect an average taser armed UK cop to encounter such an incident about once every 5000*8/50 years. That’s one in 800 years. But I guess that even though not every K2N happens just outside Buckingham Palace it might take more than one taser cop to subdue a determined throat slitter. Let’s call it four, on average. That would make one K2N intervention in every two centuries of a cop’s working life.

      So which statement more accurately reflects reality? “It’s not something your average taser-armed cop is going to see in a career of policing” or “They’re far from being as a rare as you think”.

      On the other hand UK police deploy tasers against about 400 children every year, black UK citizens are three times as likely to be tased by police as whites, about 70% of victims of UK police tasers are mentally ill and most are completely unarmed.

      And the knife to the neck incident is also a metaphor for serious and life-threatening incidents of self-harm which I’ve multiple professional experiences of handling.

      And you think tasers are a good response to such situations?
      Hint: Don’t tase people who are soaked in petrol unless you think it’s better to incinerate those who threaten self-harm than negotiate with them.

      Torture is a legal concept: it therefore requires a legal definition

      Pernicious rubbish. The concept, definition and practice of torture have been around for millennia longer than any laws about it have been. According to the UN definition you cite someone who keeps a victim chained in his basement and regularly inflicts severe physical suffering upon her is not a torturer unless they do so with official compliance. A child who sets fire to kittens is not a torturer because the victims aren’t human. I think those of us who haven’t suffocated our innate morality with legal proceduralism know full well such people are indeed torturers regardless of what various laws might say about it.

      Hannah Arendt wrote a famous book about a man who answered moral questions with legalisms. That’s when she coined the phrase “the banality of evil”. If you want to know how it looks in practice check out Dick Cheney’s twisted legal justifications for ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’.

      it is what has increasingly protected vulnerable people from the abuses of psychiatrists and other physicians that you seem all too inclined to omit from your critique of state abuse. Ironic, given how much the mental health system relies upon law enforcement to do the dirty work of coercion on its behalf

      Funny. When I scan the 295 posts on my blog I find 13 critical of police and 16 critical of psychiatrists. From 1999 to 2003 I gave six presentations at mental health conferences and made two submissions to parliament that were strongly critical of the role played by forensic psychiatrists and psychologists in Australia’s criminal justice system. I’ve also delivered lectures on the topic at UNSW and UTS. And I’ve been credited with broadening the scope of the Australian activist NGO Justice Action to include not only abuses by police and prison officers but also mental health practitioners. I could go on.

      However I’m relieved that you recognise the function of police in the mental health system is to do the dirty work of coercion on behalf of the state. I was starting to think you were so deluded you actually thought your job was meant to benefit citizens in general or even the mentally ill specifically.

      1. At the risk of stealing your (extremely rude) line and firing back at you: if that’s what you think I wrote … either up the courtesy with which you treat other contributors to the BLOG, or you will be blocked from it. Ironic that you lecture others about the straw man fallacy, given the quality of this response.

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