Police are too quick to draw their Tasers

Police are too quick to draw their Tasers

This piece was written for and first appeared on the ABC's The Drum. Damning coronial findings into the death of a Brazilian student, together with horrifying footage of a young Aboriginal boy being repeatedly Tasered and a Queensland Crime and Misconduct Commission (CMC) report indicating increased reliance on Tasers by police, demonstrate the urgent need for more rigorous police training and more stringent regulation.

Brazilian student Roberto Curti, 21, died within minutes of being chased by police, Tasered several times, sprayed with almost three cans of OC spray, handcuffed, and restrained by seven officers on the ground.

Roberto was in a psychotic paranoid state after sharing a tab of LSD with friends earlier that evening, and had come to the attention of the police after taking two packets of biscuits from a convenience store.

In the finding handed down yesterday, the NSW state coroner was highly critical of NSW Police and has recommended officers face disciplinary proceedings and the Police Integrity Commission over the excessive force used against the young man. The coroner likened the police to "schoolboys in Lord of the Flies" and described their actions as "thuggish" and an abuse of police powers.

This tragic incident once again highlights the need for caution in the use of Tasers - stun guns that administer an electric shock of 50,000 volts. Roberto's death adds to the growing body of 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 response to the finding, NSW Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione has stood by the use of Tasers, saying they 'save lives'. However, 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 or capsicum spray. Far from being used only as a less lethal alternative to firearms, the evidence appears to show that Tasers are instead being used as a far more lethal alternative to OC spray.

The description of Tasers as 'non-lethal weapons' is a misnomer. 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-related deaths to date in Australia, most recently, the death of Roberto Curti in Sydney. In each case, there are credible allegations that the Taser use was inappropriate or excessive. In one, a mentally ill man was Tasered 28 times by Townsville police.

As well as being potentially lethal, Tasers are often misused in circumstances where no force or minimal force is appropriate. Over reliance on Tasers by police was identified by an expert witness in the Curti inquest as 'lazy cop syndrome'. Tasers turn into a weapon of convenience as opposed to a weapon that is necessary.

In disturbing footage that screened on ABC's 7:30 this week, a 14-year-old Aboriginal boy was repeatedly Tasered by police, while handcuffed and not resisting. In 2010, a 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 cases, a man already in police custody was Tasered 41 times. He was subsequently acquitted of any offence.

Unfortunately these are not isolated incidents - multiple deaths and misuse of Tasers point to systemic failures in the regulation and training of police. The NSW coroner in the Curti case is right to recommend immediate review of police procedures and training in relation to Tasers and OC spray. To avoid further tragic deaths, there is an urgent need to regulate police use of force in line with human rights law and international standards, making it clear that force is only lawful as a last resort and when strictly necessary.

The coronial findings released yesterday, together with the footage screened on ABC's 7:30 program and the CMC report, also highlight an urgent need for more effective and extensive training of police in the use of force, including Tasers, particularly when engaging with vulnerable and disadvantaged groups.

An October 2012 report by the NSW Ombudsman found that almost 30 per cent of Taser use is against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island peoples, while 41 children aged 15 or under were subject to Taser use by NSW police between 2008 and 2012. The Queensland Crime and Misconduct Commission report released yesterday found that over 25 per cent of people subject to Taser use 'were believed to have a mental health condition'.

By becoming a weapon of first rather than last resort, Tasers can act as a barrier to police developing more effective communication skills. Rather than arming police with more weapons, we need to invest in equipping police to de-escalate conflict through non-violent means and supporting police to better engage with vulnerable people, including young people and people with mental illness.

Anna Brown is the Director of Advocacy and Strategic Litigation at the Human Rights Law Centre. She is on Twitter @AnnaHRLC.