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Cambridge study finds that Tasers spark more aggression

A new study by criminologists from the University of Cambridge has concluded that police officers visibly carrying one of these electroshock weapons used force more frequently, and were more likely to be assaulted themselves.

However, while use of force can include everything from restraint and handcuffing to CS spray, the Tasers themselves were only fired twice during the year-long study.

The criminologists say the findings suggest that Tasers can trigger the ‘weapons effect’ – a psychological phenomenon in which sight of a weapon increases aggressive behaviour.

While the weapons effect has been repeatedly demonstrated in simulated conditions over the last 40 years, this is one of the largest studies to show it ‘in the field’ and the first to reveal the effect in law enforcement.

Researchers say the findings of their study in London, published in the journal Criminal Justice and Behaviour, may well apply to policing situations in which other forms of weaponry – including the lethal variety – are involved.

Lead researcher Dr Barak Ariel, from Cambridge’s Institute of Criminology, said: “We found that officers are more likely to be assaulted when carrying electroshock weaponry, and more likely to apply force.

“It is well established that the visual cue of a weapon can stimulate aggression. While our research does not pierce the ‘black box’ of decision-making, the only difference between our two study conditions was the presence of a Taser device.

“There was no increase in injury of suspects or complaints, suggesting it was not the police instigating hostilities. The presence of Tasers appears to provoke a pattern where suspects become more aggressive towards officers, who in turn respond more forcefully.”

The City of London force was the first in England and Wales to test Tasers. During the rollout, police chiefs allowed Dr Ariel and colleagues to conduct and collect data from 5,981 incidents involving both armed and unarmed officers.

Use of force by police carrying Tasers was 48 per cent higher than the officers on unarmed shifts. In what researchers call a ‘contagion effect’, even unarmed officers accompanying Taser carriers used force 19 per cent more often than those on Taser-free ‘control’ shifts.

Six physical assaults against police were recorded during shifts with Taser-carrying officers, compared to just three on the unarmed control shifts. While the numbers are small, assaults against officers are rare, and researchers argue that this doubling of attacks is significant.

Despite the increased hostility uncovered by the study, actual use of electroshock weapons was minimal over the study period, with just nine ‘deholsterings’ – only two of which resulted in electric shocks to a suspect.

“For many, a weapon is a deterrent. However, some individuals interpret the sight of a weapon as an aggressive cue – a threat that creates a hostile environment,” said Dr Ariel.

The researchers suggest concealing Tasers to bypass the weapon effect.

Their study comes as figures show Taser use by Cambridgeshire police has risen 60 per cent.

Officers drew the weapon 149 times between April 2017 and March 2018 and fired it on 16 occasions (11 per cent). In 98 cases, they aimed or partially activated the weapon to produce a red target dot on the suspect.

Between January and December 2016, the previous comparable 12-month period, the force drew the weapon 93 times, firing it nine times.

Nationally, Tasers were used more than 17,000 times in 2017-18, compared with 11,300 incidents in 2016. But they were only fired 99 more times.

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