• 電槍驚魂記|戴啟思
  • 2020-01-17    


Conducted Electrical Devices-Pocket Lightning for Police Officers

News reports have it that the Police Force is re-thinking equipping police officers with stun guns.

The idea of equipping officers with stun guns or, to use the common technical abbreviation "CED" (for ‘Conducted Energy Device’), was floated just a few years back but not pursued because of health and other considerations.

Extreme caution is necessary here. CED’s or ‘stun guns’ administer powerful electric charges to the body. In one American Federal court case, a CED of a kind commonly used by police forces was reckoned to produce a 1200-volt low ampere electrical charge. The court described the effect as follows:

"The impact is as powerful as it is swift. The electrical impulse instantly overrides the victim's central nervous system, paralysing the muscles throughout the body, rendering the target limp and helpless... The tasered person also experiences an excruciating pain that radiates throughout the body."

The effect described is not surprising. As the late American comic George Carlin used to say, 'Electricity is really just organised lightning'. Until very recently, most US states used measured doses of applied electrical charges at State prisons to execute persons convicted of murder. The gruesome burning and charring of bodies led to the adoption of a more acceptable-to the audience that is-alternative method of despatch by lethal injection.

The law in Hong Kong recognises that CED’s or 'tasers' as they are sometimes called, are dangerous. The Firearms and Ammunition Ordinance defines any 'portable device which is designed or adapted to stun or disable a person by means of an electric shock applied either with or without direct contact with that person' as being within the meaning of 'arms'.

If you possess a stun weapon and do not have a licence for it, then you commit a grave criminal offence of possessing arms without a licence which carries a 14-year prison sentence.

The same law exempts all police officers from the requirement to possess a licence to carry arms. The law only intervenes to put brakes on the use by police officers of 'arms', whether they are firearms or CED's.

Precautionary and proportionate legal principles regulate the use of lethal and non-lethal force.

As a precaution, police officers should, wherever possible, try and avoid the use of force if they can achieve the policing objective by other means. Use of force when there is no need for it is always unlawful.

If a confrontation cannot be avoided, then the use of force by a police officer must be shown to have been necessary for the circumstances and then no more force than is justified must have been used. In other words, a police officer cannot use a sledgehammer to crack open a nut.

The United Nations has given guidance to law enforcement bodies on the use of force over many years. It refined the advice given to police forces using less-lethal weapons in crowd control and other situations last autumn. The new guidance dealt a number of less-lethal weapons including "Conducted Electrical Weapons ('Tasers')".

"Conducted electrical weapons are typically used to deliver pulses of electrical charge that cause the subject's muscles to contract in an uncoordinated way and prevent purposeful movement. This effect has been termed 'neuromuscular incapacitation'. The charge is delivered through metal probes that are fired towards the subject but which remain electrically connected to the device by fine wires. During the period of uncoordinated muscle activity, law enforcement officials are able to intervene to restrain the subject using conventional methods, such as handcuffs. Many models use compressed nitrogen to fire two darts that trail electric cable back to the weapon's handset. When the darts strike the human body, pulses of high-voltage charge pass down the cable."

The guidance goes on to set out when it is lawful to use these electric weapons. It is lawful to use CED’s when they are used to incapacitate, at a distance, individuals who pose an imminent threat of injury (to others or themselves). A CED is therefore not a crowd dispersal device like tear gas or water cannon. Nor is it a means of stopping in their tracks an anti-social or provocative individual which might be achieved by a raised baton or outstretched arm even. A stun gun is typically used to deal with a person holding a weapon or someone who is out of control and a danger to him or herself.

Not everyone can take 1200 volts of electricity coursing through their body. There is a risk of cardiac arrest, even with people who do not have heart conditions. Taking certain kinds of medication or drugs or alcohol can produce adverse cardiac effects if a person is 'tasered'. There is a risk of injury to children and persons who are slender and lightly built from the barbs which penetrate outer clothing and the skin. Irrespective of where an electrical charge enters the body, it may induce a seizure in persons who have epilepsy.

In 2017 the news agency Reuters reported on CED’s and calculated that there had been more than a thousand incidents in the USA over thirty years of people dying after being 'tasered'. Some of these cases involved the police using other forms of force on the deceased, and so it cannot be said that the proximate cause of death was the electric shock in every case.

Nonetheless, the findings of a 2011 US Federal Report commissioned by the Department of Justice was that deaths and serious injuries from the use of stun guns were rare as long as police officers used them correctly. The authors of the report had this to say about the overall risk of death from a stun gun.

"The risk of death in a CED (Conducted Energy Devices)-related use of-force incident is less than 0.25 per cent, and it is reasonable to conclude that CEDs do not cause or contribute to death in the large majority of those cases."

If a 1 in 400 chance of death is acceptable to you, then you play games at longer odds than I do. I am more comfortable with, but not cheered by, the odds of being hit by a car and killed-about 1 in 500.

One unusual cause of death or severe injury from the use of CED's is of real interest to people in Hong Kong. The electric charge from a CED can ignite flammable liquids and gases. When green-clad and masked police officers are out on the streets in crowd control mode, one flammable substance that you are likely to come across is tear gas residue.

The risk firing a CED and of igniting a target's clothing is real. News footage from early 2018 exists on YouTube showing a tear-gassed protester in Paris bursting into flames in this way after being ‘tasered’. The UN guidance warns of this hazard specifically.

"Use of conducted electrical weapons in the presence of flammable liquid or explosive vapour may result in fire, deflagration, or even an explosion. Some irritant spray solvents may be flammable, and the solvent may be ignited by the arc discharge from a conducted electrical weapon."

This risk means that the utmost care needs to be exercised before using a CED in some enclosed spaces or near motor vehicles.

With so many safety considerations to weigh up as well as the fundamental question of whether it is justified to use a CED, I suggest that the Commissioner of Police should not equip not every police officer with a CED. The City of London Police selects only some officers for CED training which includes Officer Safety Training, Emergency Life Support over three days. Some police forces require that police officers have a minimum number of years’ experience before being eligible to be selected for CED training.

To conclude, a case can be made out for using CED’s in some extreme one-on-one situations. Its use may avoid a police officer having resort to lethal force by using his or her firearm. However, it is troubling that talk of using CED’s occurs now after the police have encountered difficulties in managing crowd control. CED’s are not used to manage crowds. Only the very best police officers should be trusted with CED’s when dealing with crowd control management.

About the author

Philip Dykes is a Senior Counsel. He has lived in Hong Kong for over thirty years. His interests are in literature, language, history, fine art and photography. He worked as government lawyer until 1992 and he is now in private practice.

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