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Missing Taser Calls Weapon Security into Question

NZ Security, December 2016 / January 2017

Are they 'devices' or are they 'weapons'? And does what we call them matter?Are they 'devices' or are they 'weapons'? And does what we call them matter?

 

Recently a Police Taser went missing in Gisborne after a struggle ensued between Police and a group of youths. It’s yet to be found. With the Taser now a standard weapon carried by all level one police responders, just how secure is NZ Police’s cache of 1,500 Tasers?

 

On 31 July 2015, New Zealand Police Commissioner Mike Bush’s announcement that all police responders would routinely carry Tasers was greeted with some controversy. More than a year down the track, the increase to the Police’s cache of 1,000 Tasers by 400-600 new units has attracted little attention.

Figures released on 2nd September, show that of the 1,949 allegations made against police between January 1 and June 30, there were only eleven use of force complaints related to the deployment of Tasers. That’s four less than the number of complaints relating to police dog bites.

But the loss of a police Taser during a struggle between police and youths in Gisborne on 5th November has sparked concerns over the implications of a Taser in the wrong hands. The missing weapon remains unaccounted for.

It is believed the Taser and holster may have become dislodged from an officer’s belt clip when he attended a fireworks related incident on Waikanae beach. Police had been called to an incident involving a large group of youths reportedly shooting firecrackers at passers-by.

While escorting the group from the area, one of the officers was hit in the arm by a firework, and a struggle ensued when Police tried to stop the youths from running off. It is during this struggle that the Taser is believed to have become detached from the officer’s belt.

“Police are continuing to make inquiries to locate the Taser and are doing this through a range of channels including social media,” said Inspector Sam Aberahama, Area Commander Tairawhiti.

Responding to an enquiry from NZ Security, Inspector Aberahama stated that data on the number of times equipment has been misplaced or lost in each District is not held centrally. However, Police say that incidents where ‘appointments’ (batons, OC Spray, Taser etc) are misplaced or lost are “rare”.

“When not in use, a Taser is secured in a holster which is clipped onto the officer’s belt, so instances where they become detached or lost are uncommon,” stated Inspector Aberahama. “However, due to the nature of Police work officers are often faced with a range of situations including physical contact or activity, which may result in uniform items being displaced or detached.”

“A review into the incident is ongoing and when this will be completed and how findings of the review will be shared publicly are still to be determined,” he said.

While lost Tasers may be uncommon in the New Zealand context, a global snapshot suggests that the compromising of Taser security as a result of altercations in the line of duty is more commonplace than one might assume. In many cases, missing Tasers were recovered only after they had been used in the carrying out of crime.

On 25 September, the Canadian Global News reported that Winnipeg police had found a Taser that had been lost by an officer weeks earlier. The Taser had been drawn and then dropped by the officer during a struggle with a crowd while he and another officer had attempted to assist a man who had been stabbed.

Police were called to the same area three weeks later after receiving reports that a man was threatening people with a Taser outside a bar. They arrested a 19-year-old they say had taken it three weeks earlier.

In another example, a Taser that had been mistakenly left behind by a police officer during a drug search in Burnsville, Minnesota, in January 2013, turned up six weeks later when three 19-year-olds allegedly used it to rob a Subway restaurant in Burnsville.

Alarmingly, international reports indicate that a good number of Tasers are also lost through sheer officer carelessness rather than in the heat of crowd scuffles and drug searches.

In May 2015, in Manheim, Pennsylvania, police placed charges against a woman who admitted to picking up a Taser and giving it to a friend after a township police officer had inadvertently left the device on top of his police vehicle and drove away.

Investigators reviewed footage from surveillance cameras and saw a vehicle stop along the road where they believe the Taser had fallen. Police identified the owner and charged her with theft of lost property. Although charges were laid, the weapon was not recovered.

In November 2015, a Queensland Police Service Taser went missing after an officer mistakenly left it on top of his car while leaving a crime scene. An extensive search of the area initially failed to turn up the missing weapon, but it was later found.

One wonders whether a police officer would as easily forget about a firearm – such as a pistol or rifle – he/she had just placed on the roof of a police vehicle. Probably not.

Perhaps the relative carelessness afforded to the Taser by its user is a consequence of its apparent non-lethality relative to a conventional sidearm. That Tasers are commonly referred to by authorities and the media as ‘devices’ or ‘appointments’ rather than ‘weapons’ is certainly not helpful in fostering a mindset of Taser security among users.

The Taser is certainly less lethal than a ballistic weapon, but even in trained hands it has – at times – proven lethal. Trained use by a police officer is unlikely to result in serious injury or death, but malicious use in ‘the wrong hands’ is unlikely to prove so harmless.

Looking ahead, the problem with this is that the release of new versions of the Taser – capable of inflicting more harm – is just around the corner.

In the UK, it was reported in November that a two-shot Taser is on the verge of being approved for use by British police officers. Following extensive testing by government scientists of the new product, the British Home Secretary is expected to make a decision within weeks.

The new Taser holds two cartridges each containing twin metal barbs that are propelled at more than 160km per hour before delivering a five second shock. It also comes with twin laser sights designed for more accurate aiming.

According to the Daily Mail, “the device can hit two targets or offer officers a second chance of incapacitating a suspect without reloading” if the first set of barbs do not pierce the skin. The two-shot would also enable a lone officer to shoot 'multiple targets'.

This new Taser will, no doubt, provide police in the UK with a more effective ‘non-lethal’ weapon option, and depending on which side of the Taser camp one sits, this is either a good or a bad thing. An enhanced Taser in the wrong hands, however, can never be a good thing.

One Taser lost due to a lack of holster security or officer carelessness is one Taser too many. While a Taser in police hands may be appropriately described as a ‘device’, in the hands of people on the wrong side of law enforcement a Taser can only be described as a ‘weapon’ that can kill.

This is why NZ Police stating in response to our enquiries that “incidents where ‘appointments’ (batons, OC Spray, Taser etc) are misplaced or lost are rare” just doesn’t really cut it. Training, procedures and organisational cultures of accountability relating to Taser security must be commensurate with that afforded to conventional firearms, and if they aren’t – which such responses suggest – they should be improved.

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