October 30, 2005
Ali Hussain and Gareth Walsh, The Sunday Times
THE American manufacturer of Taser, the controversial stun gun, gave the exclusive British distribution rights to a senior serving police officer who helped win Home Office approval for the weapon.
Inspector Peter Boatman had a 50% share in a company that sold Tasers at the same time as devising Britain’s first police training programme for the use of weapons.
Boatman was in charge of assessing the merits of Taser as head of operational training for Northamptonshire police and was regarded as an impartial expert on the weapon.
Since he left the force a little more than three years ago, his firm has provided 1,500 Tasers worth about £1m to 20 British police forces. It is the exclusive UK distributor for the US company, Taser International.
Disclosure of the apparent conflict of interest comes after Taser International, the US manufacturer, was accused of providing American police officers with share options potentially worth $1m.
The manufacturer is also being investigated over its safety claims. A Taser fires two barbed darts, felling a potential assailant with a 50,000 volt shock and causes the target’s muscles to go into uncontrollable spasm, allowing the police to capture him. The weapon, which costs up to £750, is intended to provide police with a “less lethal” option than a gun.
More than 100 deaths have been attributed to the use of Tasers in America.
Companies House records show that Boatman took a 50% stake in a start-up company, Pro-Tect Systems, in December 2000. He became a director of the firm on December 5 and resigned three weeks later, on December 27, but held on to his stake in the company.
In February 2001, Pro-Tect received the Taser contract for the UK. Within two months Boatman was acting as an adviser to the Home Office on whether to issue Tasers to British officers. He was “regarded as a national and international expert” on Tasers, Chris Fox, the former chief constable of Northamptonshire, said yesterday.
In December 2001, three months after the Home Office approved trial imports, Boatman publicly rebutted claims by Police Federation officers that Tasers could be dangerous. Boatman wrote “with sadness” to Police Review that “this technology is very effective — more than any other technique, device or equipment for establishing control over violent and dangerous subjects”.
He retired from the police on April 16, 2002. Two days later he was installed as chairman of Pro-Tect Systems. His fellow founding director and friend, Kevin Coles, had been running the firm in the meantime.
Despite the records at Companies House, Boatman insisted he had had no connection with Pro-Tect Systems before retiring from the police, and had “never been paid by Taser to do anything on their behalf”. Taser International said it was not aware that Boatman had a share in Pro-Tect Systems while still a serving police office Boatman put on a public demonstration of his confidence in the safety of Tasers by firing one at his wife, Stephanie, in a stunt staged in November 2004. He has said he believes the stun guns have never caused a fatality.
She fell to the ground screaming “like a pig” as her husband unleashed the full 50,000 volts into her back, Yet after the briefest of recovery times the 44-year-old mother got back to her feet. The Taser stun gun, it seemed, was crippling but safe.
The demonstration marked the culmination of a five-year campaign by Boatman to convince the British authorities that the Taser should be accepted as a standard piece of kit. The Home Office approved trials of the Taser in five police forces in April 2003 after it beat rivals in subduing violent offenders without killing them. It was cleared for national use in September 2004.
Last week senior officers said it should no longer be confined to the kind of threatening incidents where a normal firearm could be used.
Taser International, the manufacturer, last week reported a 38% annual drop in sales in the third quarter. It has been thrown on the defensive by court documents that detailed the share options it gave to police in American cities.Now the process by which the device won rapid acceptance in mainstream British policing has also come under scrutiny. Questions have been raised about the precise role played by Boatman.
Boatman, 52, who was entrusted by Northamptonshire police with researching “less lethal weapons”, first encountered Tasers at an exhibition held in Germany in 1999.
The following year, Boatman developed the first Taser training programme in Britain, which was adopted and further developed by Acpo. Boatman said he had advised Home Office scientists carrying out research into “less lethal” weapons.
Last week he confirmed that he played a key role in bringing Taser to the UK. “I was the one who initially looked at the Taser and indicated that I think (sic) it would be a workable option in the UK.” Asked directly whether he was being paid by Taser while he carried out police research into “less lethal” weaponry he replied: “Of course not. I wasn’t allowed to because I was a police officer . . . As a serving police officer that would have been unlawful, unethical and immoral.
“My driving force was I wanted to help introduce tactics and equipment into the UK to make both the police forces and the members of the public that they serve . . . safer.”
Confronted later with evidence that he held a 50% stake in the distribution firm while still a serving officer, he said: “Let me just say this and be very clear: I have no comment about anything you may wish to ask about. ” He declined to answer whether his stake had been declared to the Home Office, Acpo or his senior officers.
Last week the Home Office, Northamptonshire police and Fox — now president of Acpo — also declined to answer the question.
Steve Ward, a vice-president at Taser International, said he was unaware Boatman held the stake while a serving officer.
Other questions have emerged about the independence of the process that led the Home Office and police forces to endorse the stun guns.
Among research considered by the Home Office from police in other countries during trials was a report by Darren Laur, a Canadian officer. Laur and six other serving or former officers in north America are now accused of accepting valuable share options from Taser International.
Court documents released last month in Arizona — where Taser is based — contain a deposition by Tom Smith, the company’s president, that show that all seven served in cities that bought stun guns.
Taser says the officers were not in a position to influence any buying decisions. It also states that the options were granted after the orders were placed. The Home Office said it reached its decision on the basis of independent research.
Serious concerns are also emerging over the safety and reliability of the tests carried out on Taser devices, both in Britain and America. The Securities and Exchange Commission, the US financial watchdog, last month began a formal inquiry into Taser International’s safety claims.
The manufacturer says there is evidence for only one death as a direct result of Taser fire.
There are also concerns over the readiness of police to resort to using the weapons. In Britain an investigation is continuing after police fired a Taser at a man on a bus in Leeds who failed to answer a challenge six days after the July 7 London bombings. It was later alleged he failed to respond because he was in a diabetic coma.
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October 30, 2005