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Friday, September 12, 2008

Child brings Northern Ireland police chief to court over stun guns

September 12, 2008
By Chris Thornton, Belfast Telegraph

A Belfast child was bringing a case to the High Court today to challenge the PSNI Chief Constable's decision to buy Tasers for use in Northern Ireland.

Lawyers for the child — who cannot be identified for legal reasons — are arguing that Sir Hugh Orde did not have the legal power to purchase the 50,000-volt stun guns. They also claim that he breached equality laws by handing out Tasers to officers in a pilot programme without knowing their potential impact on young people.

The stun guns, which police say are a less lethal alternative to opening fire on someone who poses a threat, were purchased late last year. They immobilise people with the electrical discharge fired through remote barbs that attach to the skin or when the weapon is placed against the skin.

A PSNI pilot programme began in January. It was initially said that it would last six months, but last month — when a Taser was used for the first time in Northern Ireland — the PSNI said it was still continuing.

The PSNI was the last police force in the UK or Ireland to deploy Tasers to officers. The first use happened in the Galliagh area of Londonderry on August 16 against a man allegedly making threats to kill.

The child's lawyers are asking the High Court to quash the Chief Constable's decision and to grant an interim injunction halting their further use.

Sir Hugh told the Policing Board last year that the purchase of the weapons was an operational matter, which falls into his remit. But Taser opponents claim the purchase and deployment of the weapons is “novel and contentious”, making it a policy matter that would be up to the Policing Board instead of the Chief Constable.

The PSNI later said Secretary of State Shaun Woodward had approved the purchase.

Opponents claim Tasers have been linked to deaths around the world, which the manufacturer denies.

The High Court case claims there is a lack of evidence about the potential impact of the weapons on children, young people, pregnant women and people with mental illness.

The lawyers are arguing that lack of evidence will have made it impossible for the PSNI to carry out a proper equality impact assessment, which is required under Northern Ireland's equality laws.

The PSNI has carried out such a study, but the results have not been published.

Relatives for Justice, the group backing the legal action, said the Board made an “irregular decision” in not contesting the Chief Constable's purchase. Paddy Kelly, director of the Children's Law Centre in Belfast, said her group “will watch with interest the development of the case”.

The Policing Board says the debate over Tasers “as with all less lethal weaponry, is one of legitimate public interest, and that a decision on this matter should not be taken lightly”. “In deploying such equipment, no more force than is reasonable in a given set of circumstances must be used and the Policing Board has a responsibility to monitor PSNI compliance in this area.”

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