The Ombudsman, Bruce Barbour has released his report into how Tasers are used by police in NSW and the picture isn’t pretty.
He reviewed 556 incidents between June 2010 and November 2010, and found the Taser was used inappropriately on 80 occasions. On 27 of those occasions, the police were not under threat and shouldn’t have used the Taser at all. Indeed, people were tasered when they were fleeing from police or handcuffed.
About a third of the people had been suffering or had suffered from mental illness and more than half had been affected by alcohol or drugs at the time.
In three-quarters of cases, the people were not carrying a weapon.
The report said that public concern about Tasers and their inappropriate use was justified, although the Police Commissioner, Andrew Scipione, defended police use of Tasers, saying it was appropriate in most cases.
The report comes as the NSW Coroner, Marry Jerram winds up her examination of the death of Roberto Laudisio Curti, a 21 year old Brazilian man who died in March after 11 police, who were trying to arrest him, tasered him 14 times.
Curti was, at the time, under the influence of a small amount of LSD and in a psychotic state; he had stolen a few packets of biscuits from a convenience store when the police were called.
Among the issues examined in this inquiry was the use of Tasers in “drive stun” mode – when the Taser is used directly on the skin.
Coroner Mary Jerram will hand down her findings on November 14th but she’s been told by medical experts giving evidence to the inquiry that there is no way of proving that the use of the Taser killed the young student.
The great benefit of the inquiry though has been to shed some light on the way in which police are now using Tasers, in New South Wales at least. In fact, counsel assisting the Coroner, Jeremy Gormly SC said: “To Taser somebody who is on the ground, who was surrounded by other officers … was a thuggish act”.
Peter Hamill SC, who represented Curti’s family, said he wanted the young man’s death recorded as “misadventure with precise medical cause unknown at the hands of members of the NSW Police Force”.
The NSW Police are reviewing the current rules which guide the way police use Tasers. And changes to operating procedures are a distinct possibility.
Change is sorely needed.
Although Tasers are rarely listed as a cause of death, there have been several Taser “related” deaths in Australia.
So, what are stun guns, who makes them and what does the rest of the world think about them?
- Taser International is the sole manufacturer of the Taser. The company has grown into a global and highly profitable concern by selling its many varieties of Taser stun guns to police agencies around the world. They are standard issue to most police forces in Australia.
- Tasers are categorized as a less than lethal weapon and deliver a 50,000 volt electrical current to cause neuromuscular incapacitation.
- A person who receives this electroshock will experience involuntary muscle contractions because their sensory and motor nerves have been stimulated. They are meant to be used to subdue suspects who are fleeing or who are belligerent and are said to be more effective at incapacitating than capsicum spray.
- Exact numbers are hard to come by but it is estimated that there are around 600,000 Tasers in use by 16,300 law enforcement agencies in 107 countries.
- It’s big business. In 2001, the weapons accounted for more than three quarters of this multi national company’s revenue. A new ‘trade-in’ policy allowing police agencies to upgrade the weapon is said to account for a 120% increase in revenue in the last quarter alone.
- In response to the number of controversial incidents, worldwide, the company now also manufactures a video surveillance system that records how police use the Taser.
- In Australia, Tasers can be used in ‘drive stun’ mode, where the weapon is pressed directly on to the skin to cause pain rather than electric shock. This delivers what is known as ‘pain compliance’.
- Taser International says the weapon has saved 75,000 lives and according to a 2009 Police Executive Research Forum study in the US, injuries to police officers drops by 76% when a Taser is used for protection.
But the controversies are many. In 2007, after four deaths in North America and Canada, a United Nations Committee Against Torture declared the stun guns to be a form of torture. It said: “In certain cases, they can even cause death, as has been shown by reliable studies and recent real-life events”
- Taser International Chairman Tom Smith’s response? “It shows how out of touch the UN committee is with modern policing. There’s not one use of force the police employ that does not inflict pain.”
- Though its figures are disputed, Amnesty International says 500 people have died in the US since 2001 after police used Tasers to subdue them during arrest or in jail. Amnesty studied the autopsy reports in 98 cases to 2008 and found 90 percent of those who died were unarmed and many received multiple Taser shocks.
- Last week, when a 61-year old blind man was tasered on his way to meet friends, the alarm bells went off again. The man was using a walking stick, which police said they thought was a samurai sword.
- The medical evidence on the impact on the body of Tasers appears inconclusive. An independent academic study in 2005 looking at the impact of the Taser on human heart rhythm found it was unlikely to cause ventricular fibrillation when used for less than 5 seconds on a healthy human being.
- But the study didn’t look at the effects of multiple shocks or the impact on those under the influence of drugs, including alcohol.
- There’s also the now significant issue of Tasers falling into the wrong hands, despite being able to be legally sold only to police agencies in Australia. Last week Richard McKenzie, a Melbourne comedian, was tasered and robbed by two men in North Fitzroy.
As police push to arm more of their frontline officers with Tasers, an overhaul of the guidelines for their use is not only due. It’s overdue.
In Australia there are no consistent guidelines across the various police force’s to ensure Tasers are used only as an alternative to using a lethal weapon such as a gun, rather than as a business-as usual means of doing the hard grunt work of policing.
In fact as Jude McCulloch, Professor of Criminal Justice and Criminology at Monash University has pointed out: “Australian and international evidence shows that as these weapons are normalised into everyday policing, they are increasingly used to gain compliance or, sadly, to simply inflict pain.”
Taser International would no doubt be delighted if the response in Australia to the death of Roberto Laudisio Curti is the purchase of its new accompanying video surveillance system.
That of course would mean we continue to be subjected to the use of the company’s biggest money spinner.
MORE ARTICLES BY MONICA ATTARD
*Monica Attard OAM, is a five-time Walkley award-winning Australian journalist – including the Gold Walkley Award for Excellence in Journalism 1991. She was the host of the ABC’s PM, the World Today and Media Watch.She spent 28 years at the ABC, leaving to start up The Global Mail where she was, until recently, the Managing Editor. In 1997, Monica published a book entitled Russia: Which Way Paradise? documenting her time there as a foreign correspondent.