Victoria Police is right not to rush the rollout of Tasers - stun guns that administer an electric shock of 50,000 volts. The tragic death of a man in Sydney at the weekend adds to the growing evidence from around the world that the safety claimed to be inherent in the use of Tasers is overstated: they can be lethal and they are frequently misused. In light of this, Victoria Police needs to ensure that the phased distribution of the devices is subject to rigorous review and evaluation. The case has not yet been made that use of them statewide is justified.
Tasers, which were trialled by uniformed and traffic management police in Bendigo and Morwell in 2010, are currently carried by members of two specialist police units in Melbourne. The double-barrel Tasers fitted with high-quality cameras that Victoria Police is now preparing to distribute to its officers across the state were not subject to the trial. So far as Victoria is concerned, they are untried.
Victoria Police must justify how we would be safer and better served before equipping front-line police with these controversial weapons. The argument that arming police with Tasers means that firearms will be used less often and that lives will be saved does not bear close examination.
A major research report by the American Civil Liberties Union in June last year found that the rollout of Tasers in US states did not result in a decline in the use of firearms. In fact, it found that the only use-of-force option to decline following a Taser rollout was the use of OC spray.
The problem with Tasers is that the term ''non-lethal weapon'' is a misnomer. While it is true that, in some circumstances, Tasers are less lethal than firearms, this is not always the case. The US recently recorded its 500th Taser-related death. And there is growing evidence of the risk of cardiac failure from Taser use.
Despite the more limited availability of Tasers in Australia, there have been at least four recorded Taser deaths to date. In each of the three earlier cases, there are credible allegations that the Taser use was inappropriate or excessive. In one, a mentally ill man died after being Tasered 28 times by Townsville police.
The circumstances surrounding the latest incident in Sydney are unclear, but police have admitted that the dead man might not have been involved in the robbery they were investigating.
The evidence also reveals another major concern. As well as being potentially lethal, Tasers are often misused. Instead of being used as an alternative to firearms, they are used in circumstances where no force or minimal force is appropriate.
In 2010, for example, West Australian police Tasered a heavily pregnant 18-year-old woman eight times, according to a complaint lodged by the Aboriginal Legal Service. In Queensland, police Tasered a 16-year-old girl. CCTV footage of the incident in Brisbane shows her being Tasered after refusing a police instruction to leave the side of her unconscious friend while awaiting an ambulance.
While any rollout of Tasers in Victoria is likely to be subject to strict guidelines, experience shows that this is unlikely to be enough to avoid these kinds of ugly incidents.
Queensland Police has acknowledged that one of the risks associated with the use of Tasers is over-reliance by police officers. This is sometimes referred to as ''mission creep'', the tendency for weapons to be deployed in circumstances outside original policy parameters, such as Tasering people to make them comply with directions.
A 2010 WA Corruption and Crime Commission report found that, in breach of police guidelines, police were using Tasers to get people to comply with their orders. In the most extreme case, a man already in police custody was Tasered 41 times. He was subsequently acquitted of any offence.
Recent research and consultations conducted by the Human Rights Law Centre have found that excessive use of force is already a significant issue for people with a mental illness, the homeless, Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders and young people, particularly of African descent. Tasers are likely to exacerbate this issue.
By becoming a weapon of first rather than last resort, Tasers can act as a barrier to police developing more effective communication and negotiation skills. These are the very skills which the State Coroner found lacking after the inquest into the shooting death of 15-year-old Tyler Cassidy in a Northcote skate park.
Rather than arming police with more weapons, we need to invest in equipping police to de-escalate conflict through non-violent means. The $12 million to be spent on the Taser rollout would be better invested in supporting and training police to better engage with vulnerable people, including young people and people with mental illness.
In the face of growing evidence of Taser-related deaths, injuries and misuse, we should think carefully about the consequences of putting another dangerous weapon in the hands of those here to protect us.
Anna Brown is the director of advocacy and strategic litigation for the Human Rights Law Centre.
This article was first published on The Age website.