Saturday, March 24, 2012

The force's new weapon of choice

Anna Patty, Lisa Davies | SMH | March 24, 2012

"It is almost like having your spinal cord severed" .... Lyn Shumack, psychologist. Photo: Craig Abraham

Tasers should not be used in place of communication skills. Anna Patty and Lisa Davies report.

The grainy black and white CCTV footage shows a young Brazilian man running from police before he is shocked by a Taser - a small snapshot of what led to his death.

As it was replayed over and again on internet and television broadcasts, it encouraged viewers to form their own opinions about the rights and wrongs of Taser use.

Reports about the trivial circumstances of 21-year-old Roberto Laudisio Curti's alleged crime - snatching a mere packet of biscuits from a convenience store - and the recent death of both his parents, who were taken by cancer, his youth and promise, made just one thing clear. This was a tragic waste of life.

But questions remain unanswered about whether the Taser was inappropriately used and whether it directly caused the young man's death.

Did he fall and hit his head? Did he have a heart attack? Did multiple firings of the Taser's 50,000 volt-charged pellets kill him? A coronial inquest will soon tell.

The circumstances in which the young police officers drew and fired their Tasers, in the knowledge that each move and sound they made would be captured on a small video camera attached to their Taser, is still unknown. This will be the subject of a investigation to be overseen by the NSW Ombudsman, Bruce Barbour.

At the height of an emotionally-charged debate over the use of Taser guns, Mr Barbour is completing the most comprehensive review of Taser use in Australia, analysing how the device was used more than 1600 times in NSW from October 2008 to November 2010.

During that period, fewer than 30 official complaints were made.

''There are a number of examples publicly discussed already where police have believed that the Taser use was appropriate and where we and magistrates or courts have said we don't think it was appropriate in those circumstances,'' Mr Barbour said. After an earlier review in 2008, he recommended a two-year moratorium before Tasers were widely circulated to allow for the development of protocols, taking into account lessons learned from overseas.

''Unfortunately the government at the time decided they wouldn't follow that course and decisions were made in quick succession to make more Tasers available and to roll them out to all general duties officers,'' Mr Barbour said. ''More than 15,000 police are trained in the use of Tasers in NSW and we have more than 1100 Tasers in use - the most anywhere in the country.''

In response to the overseas experience, Mr Barbour warned of a trend known as ''mission creep'', where police use Tasers in low-risk situations to gain compliance. One woman in the US was shocked by a Taser after refusing to follow a police order to get out of bed.

''We don't want to see police lose the skill to effectively communicate in situations to de-escalate rather than simply resorting to options they have around use of force like capsicum spray and Tasers,'' Mr Barbour said.

While the government ignored Mr Barbour's warnings, NSW Police took them onboard in their training and operating guidelines. Every time an officer takes a Taser out of its holster, the video and sound camera attached starts rolling and each video is reviewed.

The Herald understands the Ombudsman's audit has identified inappropriate use of Tasers in a minority of cases, including some which police had deemed appropriate. The rules say Tasers should be used only as a less lethal alternative to a firearm where loss of life or violence are threatened. They should not be used to force compliance, on someone who is running or passive.

NSW police undergo a four-hour tutorial and four hours of practical training, and must pass a written exam with a minimum score of 80 per cent.

A highly-ranked officer said the fact that Mr Laudisio was hit by Tasers several times did not mean he was shot by the same person. "It's not uncommon for somebody to be Tasered three times, as multiple officers can make the decision [to fire] at the same time," the senior police officer said.

"It's the same with shootings."

Another highly-ranked officer said she believed females were less likely to use their Tasers to gain compliance or to make up for a slight stature.

''Women may not be physically strong, as big or tall, but most female officers have better communications skills than the blokes,'' she said. ''We get ourselves out of dangerous situations by communicating.''

''We are taught not to use Tasers as a compliance thing . It's not worth it anyway … There's too much paper work involved.''

A Sydney forensic psychologist, Lyn Shumack, said the tendency to use a Taser would relate to how fearful an officer was of a threat to safety.

''If someone has a weapon and they are terrified, the tendency is to use it,'' she said. ''I have had contact with people who have been Tasered and unlike any other weapon apart from a gun, it is totally debilitating. It is almost like having your spinal cord severed. People are likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress because they become completely debilitated by the shock.''

The introduction of stun guns has not reduced firearms use and has led to calls from the NSW Greens for the state government to ensure they are being used appropriately.

Police use of firearms in NSW has remained relatively steady, ranging from 837 times in 2008-09 to 865 in 2009-10. A police spokesman said firearms were used mainly to shoot injured animals.

NSW Police figures show Tasers were used 125 times after their introduction in 2008, 404 times in 2009 before rising dramatically to 1151 times in 2010. Last year the number fell to 881.

The Assistant Commissioner Alan Clarke said Tasers had been helpful as a suicide intervention tool, in situations where a person was threatening to hurt themselves.

He said they had helped reduce police injuries - about 22 per cent of all police injuries were assault-related, but since the Taser's introduction it had fallen to 11 per cent.

He said seven times out of 10 police did not fire a Taser once it had been drawn.

''If someone in the community is being violent, we can't just walk away,'' he said.

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