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Issue #1477      20 October 2010

Taser terror – adding to the repressive arsenal

Fatal incidents have broken the Australian media’s silence on Tasers. Almost 7,000 of the devices have been delivered by their US manufacturer to Australian police and prison services in the past three years. Darts pierce the body of their target to a depth of 9mm and deliver a 50,000-volt shock down wires trailing from the gun. The result is violent and painful muscle contractions. Tasers are supposed to be used as a last resort in situations of “real and imminent harm”, an alternative to firearms, but the evidence is rolling in that they are being used simply to get compliance. With police forces getting more extensive powers over the years and set to get even more, the potential for wide scale abuse of Tasers is extremely worrying.

A police officer in Philadelphia used his stun gun on a teenager who jumped onto a playing field and ran around in circles in the outfield waving a towel. The enthusiastic fan was not threatening anyone yet the Police Commissioner who examined a video of the arrest felt the officer acted within departmental guidelines. Is this what we want in Australia?

Of course, the Taser isn’t the only form of violence short of the use of firearms used by police that can have fatal consequences. There was the recent case of Steven Bosevski, an NRL grand final partygoer who died in hospital after an incident in which police claim he had to be subdued. The exact cause of death still has to be established but it has been revealed Bosevski was beaten repeatedly with a baton and blasted with capsicum spray.

Worldwide over 60 people have died after being sprayed with capsicum spray. It can react with several drugs, such as some blood pressure medication and some illicit drugs such as cocaine. The manufacturer of Tasers includes warnings about the risks involved in using the device but they are not always heeded. They are not supposed to be used on pregnant women or extremely thin people. They may not always be effective on people having a psychotic episode.

Taser darts should not be shot into a person’s chest but that it is precisely what happened to a Sydney man recently. Police were called to his western suburbs home recently after he allegedly sexually assaulted his girlfriend. He reportedly approached police with two knives and threatened them. He died as a result of the Taser shock. Police say the attending officers did not have the choice of shooting preferred areas like the lower back and that a response with firearms would also have been fatal.

It is an unenviable challenge intervening in dangerous, often drug and alcohol-fuelled disturbances. The police will have to use some sort of force in some otherwise uncontrollable situations. “At the end of the day, if it was one of my kids carrying on in a crazy way, with alcohol or drugs or mental illness, I would much prefer they be Tasered than the alternative,” Australian Police Federation chief executive Mark Burgess told The Australian recently.

Police point to a decline in the number of assaults on officers since the introduction of the Taser. Fewer people have been shot with firearms. But Tasers have now been implicated in four deaths in Australia and the community is rightfully worried that they are not only being used in life or death circumstances but simply to intimidate members of the public and to get compliance. Civil liberties advocates claim police and correctional officers have “lowered the bar” on the quality of their response, reaching for the Taser when previously they would have spent more time “talking down” their subjects.

Queensland’s Crime and Misconduct Commission described as “poor policing” the use of a Taser on a 16 year old who had refused to “move on”. She had been waiting with a sick friend in an inner Brisbane park for an ambulance to arrive. An Aboriginal man in Warburton in outback Western Australia burst into flames in a Taser incident when he allegedly threatened to throw petrol he was carrying over police.

WA has been the focus of a lot of the recent controversy surrounding Taser use. Scenes captured on closed circuit TV in the East Perth police watchhouse have been released to the public by the state’s Crime and Corruption Commission. They show an Aboriginal man being stunned 13 times by police. While Kevin Spratt was writhing in agony he was yelled at by officers intent on administering a strip search. “Stop fucking around!” “Do you want to go again?”

It was a disgusting, degrading spectacle. Premier Colin Barnett admits the scandal has made his task of ushering in increased police powers that much harder. It also puts the heat on national police authorities as they work to produce a standard set of guidelines for Taser use. The Greens are calling for an inquiry into the use of Tasers. Pressure must be maintained to get police to limit the deployment of Tasers to the appropriate circumstances because, while guidelines vary in detail from state to state, none of them sanction the use of the devices to simply to achieve compliance. Yet it happens.

The scandals surrounding Tasers and other violent responses from police may have made it awkward for state and federal authorities to press for police powers that have already been boosted dramatically from the beginning of the decade. But they won’t stop pushing without resistance from the public. States look set to follow Victoria’s example and lay down fines of $28,000 for protestors locking themselves onto infrastructure such as coal-fired electricity generating plants.

Police already have the capacity to declare and lock-down areas, search individuals and ban others as happened during the 2007 meeting of APEC in Sydney. The UN classifies stun guns as “instruments of torture” but they would be a handy addition to the arsenal of equipment and legislation being turned on Australians’ right to protest. This must be specifically ruled out. 

Next article – South African mining leader hammers Xstrata in Australia

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