Bedfordshire Police is using a rising number of force tactics – including firing TASER devices – on children, figures reveal.
The Howard League said police forces across England and Wales should reduce the "worrying" rise in use of force incidents involving children.
Home Office statistics show Bedfordshire Police used force tactics on under-18s on 650 occasions in 2020-21 – with three involving children under 11.
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This was up from 623 the year before, and 482 in 2018-19 – the first year such figures were recorded at police force level.
Last year, Bedfordshire officers handcuffed children 291 times, physically restrained them on the ground on 62 occasions and used 22 limb or body restraints.
Officers also recorded two instances of firearms being aimed.
Chief Inspector Alex House said: “Bedfordshire Police has a low number of recorded uses of force compared to other forces around the country. Statistics show our officers have used force less than half as many times as one of our neighbouring forces over the past year.
“We do our utmost to protect children and young people from harm and not criminalise them. However, our officers regularly face dangerous situations on the streets of Bedfordshire, including young people in possession of knives or other weapons and sometimes force has to be used in order to protect all involved and other members of the public from harm.
“Young people involved in criminality is often fuelled by county lines and other organised criminal gangs exploiting them. As a force, we are committed to tackling issues of violence and exploitation and supporting those vulnerable young people, and so have a number of programmes and support available, including the Violence and Exploitation Reduction Unit (VERU) and as part of the Bedfordshire Against Violence and Exploitation partnership campaign.
“We are mindful of the impact of any use of force on the public, especially children and young people, and whenever we use any type of force our officers will have to consider the legal context, whether it is proportionate to do so and if there is alternative means available. Each incident is assessed on the unique threat, harm, and risk it presents.
“Of all our officers’ interactions with children and young people, where the Home Office definition of force was used, only five per cent of these resulted in a taser device being drawn and just one discharge of a taser device.
“We also have arrangements in place for aftercare whenever a taser device is fired and force is used, and these incidents are automatically reviewed by our Professional Standards Department.
“We also work closely with an independent scrutiny panel, made up of local community members to ensure that use of force by our officers is reviewed to ensure it continues to be proportionate, lawful and necessary, given the circumstances. The panel is able to recommend learning or refer any concerns to senior leadership and our Professional Standards Department.”
Andrew Neilson, director of campaigns at the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “A steep rise in the police use of force against children is a worrying trend, particularly when the levels of children arrested remain thankfully low.
“Police forces across England and Wales should review what might be behind this rise and work to reduce the number of incidents involving children."
Officers across the two nations drew or fired TASER devices 2,600 times on children in 2020-21 – with 33 uses logged by Bedfordshire Police.
Of these, one saw the device discharged.
TASER devices are designed to temporarily incapacitate someone with an electric shock – either fired at someone from a distance or held against their body to stun them.
The Children’s Rights Alliance for England wants their use on children banned, or permitted in only the rarest situations.
Louise King, director of the CRA, said that even when not fired, a TASER device is still “frightening and traumatic” to be threatened with.
She added that police argue the conducted energy weapons help protect the public and police officers, but that “shouldn’t come at the cost of children’s safety and human rights”.
The National Police Chiefs' Council said a TASER devices is only discharged in 10 per cent of uses, and each one must be fully recorded, proportionate and justified.
Deputy Assistant Commissioner Matt Twist, NPCC lead for self-defence and restraint, said officers must protect people of all ages from harming themselves or others, often in fast-moving violent scenarios.
He added: “Officers have thousands of interactions with the public every day and force is not used in the vast majority of those.
"Officers receive guidance and training with the starting point being that they should attempt to resolve confrontations with the public without the need to use force."
A Home Office spokeswoman said a change in the number of incidents is likely a consequence of improved recording methods and should not be seen as a worrying increase in the use of force.