The use of Tasers and spit hoods on children should be banned in the UK, the global humanitarian organisation for children Unicef has recommended.
Police in some forces in England use them disproportionately on black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) children, Unicef found, saying the continued use of Tasers on children runs in opposition to international children’s rights standards.
In a report, Unicef UK said the government should prohibit their use on children under the age of 18, and called on the Home Office to assess the reasons “for the disproportionate use of spit hoods on BAME children in England”. It also recommended an increase in the age of criminal responsibility from 10 in England.
The latest statistics on police use of force in England and Wales found that Tasers – devices designed to incapacitate with a high-voltage electrical discharge – were used against under-18-year-olds 3,280 times in 2018-2019. Tasers were used on children aged 11 or under on 29 occasions.
Although the use of Tasers in Scotland on children is not routine, there is nothing to prohibit their use on children under 18 years old, according to Unicef’s Rights-Based Analysis of Youth Justice in the UK.
As far back as 2008, the UN committee on the rights of the child has called on the UK government to stop using Tasers on under-18-year-olds, urging ministers to “treat Taser guns and AEPs [attenuating energy projectiles, a kind of rubber bullet] as weapons subject to the applicable rules and restrictions and put an end to the use of all harmful devices on children.”
Tasers have been increasingly used by police forces in the UK since they were first trialled in 2003 in England. They were introduced in Northern Ireland in 2008. In 2014, the UK’s coalition government confirmed that, despite the UN committee’s repeated concerns, children would not be exempt from being subjected to Taser if they posed a threat.
“While we support the recommendation in principle, we believe it is impractical to implement it while Taser is in use for other age groups and officers’ first priority must be to defend members of the public or themselves,” the government said.
In March 2020, the Home Office announced that police forces in England and Wales would receive £6.7m to purchase 8,155 Tasers.
A spit hood is a bag constructed out of mesh that is placed over the head of a detainee to stop them from spitting or biting, with the aim of preventing injury or infection to the police officer. Spit hoods are now used by the bulk of police forces in England and are increasingly being used on children who come into contact with the law, Unicef said.
Between April 2018 and March 2019, spit hoods were used on children on 312 occasions (including four children who were aged under 11), up from 47 occasions the previous year, according to Home Office statistics obtained by the Children’s Rights Alliance for England (CRAE).
Across the whole period requested for 2017 and 2018, BAME children accounted for 34% of spit hood use nationally and 72% of use by the Metropolitan police in London. “This shows hugely disproportionate use of spit hoods on BAME children, given that they make up approximately 18% of the 10-17-year-old population,” the CRAE said.
Anna Kettley, director of programmes at Unicef UK, said: “Some of the most vulnerable children in the UK end up in the criminal justice system – we know many of them have experience of care, experience of abuse or neglect, many have been excluded from school. We know these are highly vulnerable children and we would argue that a system that embeds and fully upholds children’s rights is a system that is not only best for children but society as a whole.”
Meanwhile, a separate Unicef report found that the number of schoolchildren affected by Covid-19-related school closures rose by 38% in November, placing significant strain on the learning progress and wellbeing of an additional 90 million students globally. According to data collected by UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, classrooms for nearly one in five schoolchildren globally – or 320 million – were closed as of 1 December, an increase of nearly 90 million from 232 million on 1 November.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “Police put themselves in harm’s way to defend us and the use of Taser and spit and bite guards provides officers with an important tactical option when facing potentially violent situations.
“We are clear that no one should be subject to use of force based on their race or ethnicity - it must be lawful, proportionate and necessary, and subject to proper scrutiny. Officers undergo comprehensive training to factor in potential vulnerabilities, and must take age and stature into account when assessing each situation.”