Applying less-lethal -weapons in UK security

In September 1999 the Independent Commission on Policing for Northern Ireland (know as the Patten Report), laid the foundations for the research and development of less-lethal options to be made available to UK police. Seven years later, Taser, CS and Pava sprays and side-handled batons are now an established facet of the UK policing picture.

With the threats to UK security that now exist, is there a requirement for the use of less-lethal weapons to be expanded beyond the limited policing role that they currently fulfil?

Establishing the requirement

The review of policing technologies that was brought about by the Patten Report originated from the desire to address the specific issue of the effects of plastic bullets in Northern Ireland. The report made two recommendations (69 and 70) with regard to what was described as public order policing.

  • An immediate and substantial investment should be made in a research programme to find an acceptable, effective and less potentially lethal alternative to the plastic baton round.
  • The police should be equipped with a broader range of public order equipment than the then Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) currently possessed, so that a commander has a number of options at their disposal that might reduce reliance on, or defer to the plastic baton rounds.

Three years before the Patten Report was published, UK police - driven by the introduction of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 - adopted the Personal Safety Programme. This aimed to equip officers appropriately for the risks they faced in everyday duties. Under these auspices less-lethal weapons were researched for use among all UK police forces.

There were key incidents that drove the search for less-lethal alternatives to deadly force during the early 2000s. During 2001, police found themselves having to cope with riots in cities such as Stoke, Oldham, Burnley and Bradford. In the latter, police were only a matter of minutes away from firing rubber bullets into a crowd for the first time on the UK mainland. In response to this, the then Home Secretary David Blunkett called for there to be more options available to police in public order situations.

Two further incidents in 2001 also drove less-lethal weapons adoption into the police service. Andrew Kernan, a schizophrenic man, was shot twice in the chest while wielding a samurai sword. His relatives believed that he could have been disarmed without being killed. The second incident occurred a week later when Derek Bennett was shot five times by an armed response unit in Brixton, London, who believed he was carrying a gun. The High Court ruled the officers had acted lawfully and no-one was prosecuted.

These incidents added to the call for less-lethal options to be made available, culminating in the authorisation for use by firearms officers of the M26 Taser in September 2004, the X26 Taser in March 2005 and the AEP round in June that year.

The changing nature of the threat

The 7 July 2005 London bombings radically changed the UK's perception of its security threat. Even though there had been the threat of Islamist extremist ideals being disseminated in various parts of the country, the attack on London by UK-born citizens was highly unexpected. More than any single event, the attack focused minds within government, the security services, industry and the public to the potential and actual damage, both human and material, that could be inflicted on the UK.

The terrorist threat to the UK from within its own shores is one of the most prominent security threats currently faced. Less-lethal weapons have been proven to be useful in counter-terrorist operations, even though Met Police Commissioner Sir Ian Blair has said that the use of a Taser on a suspected suicide bomber runs "an incredible risk" of the terrorist detonating a bomb.

However, not only do less-lethal weapons have the potential to assist in the arrest of a suspect, but they can also assist in halting negative media coverage after the use of live firearms, as was the case after the arrests of two men in Forest Gate, London, in June. One man was accidentally shot in the shoulder by armed officers but both men were subsequently released without charge. Police had to publicly apologise for their actions.

Alternative roles

Terrorism constitutes only one of the emergencies outlined by the Civil Contingencies Secretariat (CCS) of potential national impact that the UK must -prepare for. Other areas of potential risk are:

  • severe weather, flood or drought
  • human health pandemics or epidemics
  • transport accidents
  • animal and plant diseases
  • public protest
  • international events
  • industrial failure
  • structural failure
  • chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) attack
  • industrial accidents and environmental pollution.

There are four key characteristics that the majority of these events share. First, in most situations civilians will be close to the emergency itself. Second, if there is an 'aggressor' they will often be close to innocent members of the public. Third, there will be a high level of media scrutiny which accompanies any large-scale emergency. Finally, in all these cases, it is imperative to minimise casualties. In all these respects less-lethal weapons can assist.

There are three key capability areas in which less-lethal weapons could be of assistance. First, counter-personnel less-lethal options, used to incapacitate individuals, could be applied. This category includes weapons such as the Taser, impact munitions, acoustic devices or the use of directed energy such as microwave beams. The second capability area is counter-material less-lethals, used to disable vehicles and degrade materials. Examples of this are vehicle-stopping devices such as the 'X-net' or 'caltrops', or anti-traction chemicals. The third area is counter-capability technologies which could disable facilities, systems and the effects of CBRN weapons, an example of which would be an electromagnetic pulse weapon.

These options could also be used in the defence of key military installations and areas of critical importance to our national infrastructure. They can also be used to assist in quarantining an area which contains infected livestock, as seen in the Foot and Mouth outbreak in 2000, or is contaminated with materials of a CBRN nature.

The Patten Report in 1999 laid out the initial requirements for less-lethal options to replace the plastic baton rounds. What is clear now is that requirements for these weapons have overtaken these initial requests. Having shown that less-lethal weapons have applications within one-on-one arrest situations, is it time that the potential these weapons have for larger scale use is considered by government authorities to tackle threats to our -security?

Dr Tobias Feakin is Head of Homeland Security Capabilities at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies.

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