Published: 00:01, 31 July 2014
Children as young as 13 have been threatened with Tasers by police in Kent, with dozens of people left in hospital after being stunned by the weapons.
Four teenagers were among more than 140 people hit with 50,000 volts by stun guns in the county in the last four years, figures obtained by KentOnline reveal.
The county's force - which has also stunned three dogs and drawn a Taser on a 79-year-old woman - has been branded trigger-happy by human rights charity Amnesty International.
Total Taser use across the county - ranging from when police draw the weapons to firing them - has risen by almost 50% in the last four years, with Kent officers using the electronic stun weapons more readily than any other force in the south east. It has gone up from 184 in 2010 to 274 in 2013.
"Tasers send an excruciating jolt of electricity into their targets and there were four instances where Kent Police fired them against children..."
Kent Police has since revealed that most of the children stunned had threatened police with weapons including knives and a hammer. Two 16-year-olds and two 17-year-olds were the youngest to be stunned with the guns in Kent.
The 13-year-old girl threatened with one of the weapons in Tunbridge Wells also had a knife.
And police say the 79-year-old woman targeted with a Taser had harmed herself with a knife and was threatening to harm herself again.
The high level of use in Kent – and the age of targets – has drawn criticism from human rights charity Amnesty International.
Amnesty International UK arms control programme director Oliver Sprague said: “We don’t oppose all Taser use, but we’d question why there has been a 50% increase in Taser deployment in Kent in the last four years.
“Tasers send an excruciating jolt of electricity into their targets and there were four instances where Kent Police fired them against children, despite government warnings of particular medical dangers over Tasering children and other vulnerable groups.
"Tasers are potentially lethal weapons and Kent Police is using them more and more with very little information available about why, when and how.
"Knowing the circumstances in which a Taser is used is a vital safeguard to help ensure it's only being used in response to very dangerous, life-threatening situations.”
Ch Insp Mat Newton defended the use of Tasers, arguing officers showed restraint and rarely had to stun people. Tasers were drawn 274 times last year, but only 44 people were stunned.
“We believe our officers consistently demonstrate restraint when using the device. Quite often, simply the act of drawing a Taser is enough to gain an offender’s cooperation and enable officers to diffuse violent situations.
“Our officers know the importance of communicating with a violent person, but where this proves unsuccessful they have a duty to intervene. Before discharging a Taser officers will give a verbal warning.
"In the last four years incidents involving children have been extremely low which is a reflection of officers seeking cooperation and communication to resolve incidents."
Since 2010, 49 people in Kent have been taken to hospital after being stunned, with a further 55 receiving treatment from a forensic medical examiner while in custody.
Not all Kent officers are equipped with Tasers, with individuals chosen by managers for their “good judgement and decision making skills.”
Kent Police would not reveal how many are equipped with the weapons, claiming this would compromise officers’ safety, but the force runs an average of 16 courses per year with 12 students per course.
Officers refresh their training annually and are not on the receiving end of a Taser as part of the course.
Amnesty International says this is not enough and expressed concern about Kent Police sending under-trained officers onto the streets with “potentially deadly weapons”.
Mr Sprague said: "Three months and one refresher course a year is not sufficient. This is in stark contrast to firearms officers who undergo continuous, regular training throughout their career.”
Ch Insp Newton refuted claims officers are inadequately trained.
He said: “Our Taser-trained officers have to undergo a selection process and are trained in accordance with national standards. Every officer has to justify their use of the device after every incident and we independently scrutinise their rationale.”
Kent Police now spends more than £100,000 on Taser equipment and training. This has increased from £88,136 in 2009/10.
The number of people hit by Tasers in Kent was just 29 in 2010. This decreased to 28 in 2011, before rising to 35 in 2012 and jumping to 44 in 2013.
The county sees a huge variation in the prevalence of Taser use in each police district with Swale police stunning 20 people since 2010, twice as many as any other area. Officers in Dover however, have not discharged their Tasers in that time.
During the same period, 10 people were stunned in Ashford, eight in Canterbury , five in Medway, seven in Gravesham, six in Maidstone, one in Sevenoaks, eight in Shepway, five in Thanet, eight in Tonbridge and Malling and two in Tunbridge Wells.
Chief Constable Alan Pughsley has today defended officers' use of Tasers.
He said: "I fully support my Taser-trained officers in their use of this piece of protective equipment and I reject any criticism that the use in Kent is in some way too high. My officers are thoroughly trained to use the device in the safest possible way, always with public protection and minimising the risk to life at the forefront of their mind.
"Let me be clear - my officers have a right to defend themselves from extremely violent attacks, and they have a duty to use reasonable force to protect others from serious harm.
"Often Taser is used to prevent people causing themselves serious harm when attempting suicide for example. I disagree with the misplaced idea that there is some sort of regional 'league table' of use. What matters is that we are saving lives and preventing serious injury, and the public of Kent should be reassured that Taser is never an option used lightly. Each and every use in Kent is thoroughly examined."
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