More will die unless Taser use restricted

This piece was first published by the Sydney Morning Herald

Police are overusing stun guns when they should be a weapon of last resort. 

The recent death of a Sydney man after being tasered by police is tragic, made even more so because it is only the latest example of inappropriate and often outrageous use of these stun guns by some police officers. Governments and police services need to justify how it is in the interests of the community that police carry such devices. 

This week's death in Sydney was at least the third recorded Taser death in Australia. Two men also died last year, one after being tasered up to 28 times by police in Townsville. 

Police use of Tasers is not only a problem when it results in death. These stun guns deliver approximately 50,000 volts of electricity into a person, inflicting excruciating pain. 

Their misuse can amount to torture, as well as lead to serious injury. In one case, a man in Western Australia received third-degree burns to 10 per cent of his body, including burns to his throat, after police tasered him while he was carrying a fuel container and a cigarette lighter. 

In Melbourne, two specialist police units - the special operations group and the critical incident response team - are presently armed with Tasers. Last year, Victoria Police Chief Commissioner Simon Overland indicated that he did not propose that the use of Tasers be extended to all police. However, earlier this year he sounded a more equivocal note when he announced a year-long trial of Tasers in rural areas, focusing initially on all uniformed and traffic management police in Bendigo and Morwell. 

But there are serious problems with current police policies and practices nationwide that need to be urgently addressed for the continued use of Tasers by any police to be justified. 

The first problem is that Tasers are often not treated as potentially lethal weapons, but are seen as a safer alternative to police using guns with bullets. On this approach, it is said to be preferable that police use Tasers rather than guns, as using a Taser could save someone's life. 

It is true that, in some circumstances, Tasers are less lethal than guns, but it is not always the case. A Canadian inquiry found that Tasers increased the risk of heart failure. Amnesty International estimates that in 2008 more than 300 people died in the US after being struck by a Taser. Tasers are potentially deadly and dangerous weapons and must be treated as such. 

The second problem is that, in practice, Tasers are not always used in circumstances in which police would otherwise be justified in using a gun, but are instead increasingly used as compliance tools or in less serious situations. The NSW Ombudsman and the Northern Territory Coroner have expressed serious concerns about inappropriate Taser use. In one of the more absurd incidents, in April last year, Geraldton police tasered a person who was driving a car. 

The third problem is that the evidence clearly demonstrates that Tasers are used disproportionately against particularly marginalised and disadvantaged groups, including indigenous people and those who are experiencing mental health crises. 

If Tasers were only used to prevent recourse to handguns, one would hope we would not have seen the shocking incident in Western Australia, where it is alleged that police tasered a pregnant 18-year-old woman up to eight times. 

It is also unlikely that we would have seen police in South Australia use a Taser to subdue a man in a mental health crisis, and New South Wales police might have avoiding use of a Taser against an 18-year-old at Carols by Candlelight to defuse a situation. 

The Queensland Police Service has acknowledged that one of the key risks associated with the use of Tasers is over-reliance by police officers. This is sometimes referred to as ''mission creep'' - that is, Tasers become a weapon of first choice, and a barrier to the development of skills and experience in negotiation and de-escalation. 

It is extremely disappointing that at the same time as deaths and injuries from Tasers rise across Australia, so too does the use of Tasers by police forces across Australia without proper justification. 

For too long, the law and order agenda of governments has trumped all other interests. The evidence increasingly suggests that arming police with Tasers is harmful and potentially deadly, and that use of the weapons causes an immense amount of pain. Taser policies and practices across Australia must change to reflect that evidence. 

Police are here to protect us. For the most part, they do that job well. But how many incidents do we need, including deaths, before governments restrict Taser use by police in evidence-based and appropriate ways, including through proper regulation? Tasers should only ever be used as a last resort and where absolutely necessary to prevent death or a serious risk to life. 

Emily Howie is director for advocacy and strategic litigation at the Human Rights Law Centre.