Shock Tactics: the use of Tasers in New South Wales

The teenager made a number of mistakes. First, he ignored police directions. They asked him to move on from Blacktown train station, where he had been drinking and hanging out with friends and family. Second, when police spotted him later in the night, he swore and ran away, hoping to avoid confrontation. They gave chase. Third, he swept around a corner too fast and fell down the platform stairs, knocking himself unconscious in the process. The station’s CCTV footage shows a police officer finding his inert body, dragging him down the remaining steps without regard for his condition, and handcuffing him. He lay senseless for almost two minutes and regained consciousness as more police officers were arriving at the scene. His final mistake was to struggle against the officers as he woke up in a daze, surprised to find himself handcuffed and surrounded.

The teenager is Einpwi Amom, a Sudanese-Australian boy who was 17 when the arrest was made on June 20, 2013. Now 18, Mr Amom fled the war in Sudan with his family in 2003 and settled in the Blacktown area in Sydney’s west. He struggles to understand his treatment by police.

“They were holding me, twisting my arms and legs,” Mr Amom told the ABC’s 7.30 Report. “It was like a gang just attacking me.” A bystander filmed the struggle and this mobile phone footage, together with CCTV, captured the night’s events. Watching the footage, there is no doubt that Einpwi resisted arrest to some degree, but he was injured, handcuffed, unarmed and surrounded by six officers, and so it is the next move that has caused controversy in the local Blacktown community and beyond: he was Tasered.

Tasers are also known as CED (conductive energy device) weapons. The stun guns shoot two barbed darts into the victim and use wire to deliver a series of 50,000 volt electrical pulses that cause immobilising muscular contractions and severe pain. The darts can be effective even if they only lodge into the victim’s clothing instead of piercing the skin. Tasers can also be used in “Drive Stun mode”, which involves direct contact with the skin and does not cause muscular contractions. US Department of Justice guidelines released in 2011 recommend against the use of Tasers in this way.

The use of Tasers has incrementally become commonplace in Australian law enforcement, beginning with specialist police but now moving into the general police force as a standard piece of equipment. In New South Wales, Tasers have been standard issue since 2009, but have come under increasing scrutiny since the death of Brazilian student Roberto Laudisio Curti in March 2012. Roberto was under the influence of LSD and was Tasered multiple times (including in Drive Stun mode) before he died.

The NSW Coroner investigated Roberto Curti’s death and noted in November 2012 that “policing is a difficult and often dangerous job. They are entitled when necessary to use reasonable force. These are not entitlements available to almost any other members of our society, and with them come huge responsibilities. In the pursuit, Tasering, tackling, spraying and restraining of Roberto Laudisio Curti, those responsibilities were cast aside, and the actions of a number of the officers were just that: reckless, careless, dangerous, and excessively forceful.”

“Many of the involved police were extremely junior and inexperienced, and yet were armed with Tasers. Tasers are far from toys, and cause serious pain and temporary loss of self-control. Even current SOPs [standard operating procedures] warn against their multiple or prolonged use because of the risk of serious injury or death,” said the Coroner’s report.

The NSW Ombudsman released a report into the use of Tasers by NSW police, also in late 2012. The report did not consider the Curti case because it was prepared before the Coroner’s findings were released. It was the second comprehensive investigation undertaken by the Ombudsman’s office, but the first since Tasers had been made available to the broader police population. “The increase in the number of Taser weapons and officers who can carry a Taser bring a greater risk that Tasers may be used inappropriately,” stated the report. The Ombudsman’s findings supported the continued deployment of Tasers, but also acknowledged that there is “significant and justified concern within the community” and noted that “a Taser must be used only in situations where there is a real threat of harm or danger to police or members of the community.”

The Ombudsman further recommended that Tasers should not be used against handcuffed persons unless that use can be justified and there are exigent circumstances. Neither police nor members of the community were endangered by Einpwi Amom: he was handcuffed, surrounded by six officers and had just recovered from a loss of consciousness. Mr Amom was charged with six offences: offensive language, resisting a police officer in the course of duty, failing to comply with direction and three counts of assaulting a police officer. However, upon hearing his case and viewing the video footage, the Parramatta Children’s Court magistrate dropped all charges against Mr Amom, ruling that the officers acted outside the lawful execution of their duty.

The police response to the incident has changed over time. Acting Inspector Wayne Kelly from Blacktown Police initially released a statement that the Taser use in this case was “found to comply with police policy” and that no complaint had been made. This response did its job by being widely reported in the media at the time, but did not last long beyond that. A police spokesman approached for this article stated that “it is inappropriate for NSW Police to comment as the matter is currently before the Police Integrity Commission,” implying that a complaint has now been made and that the officers’ actions are indeed under investigation.

Local Blacktown residents are a diverse group who have a range of mixed responses to this incident. A protest against the police treatment of Einpwi Amom was held at Blacktown station on November 24, 2013, and was attended by approximately 50 concerned community members. Some protesters claim there are racial issues at play and that Blacktown police have a poor record of communication with the large migrant community in western Sydney. A Facebook page promoting the event claims that “this isn’t the first case of police harassment against young people with little to no justifiable cause, but it ought to be the last.” Meanwhile, other residents are concerned about the problem of drunken youths loitering at the train station and making commuters feel unsafe. Many are quick to point out that Mr Amom would not have been Tasered if he had simply followed police instructions.

Following the Ombudsman’s report, the NSW Police Minister Michael Gallacher told parliament that “the level of scrutiny that is in place relating to Tasers in this state is the highest in the world. The Ombudsman recognises the high level of compliance by police—well over 80 per cent compliance with the standard operating procedures in this state.” Critics such as Greens MLC David Shoebridge claim that 80 per cent compliance is simply not good enough when dealing with a dangerous weapon.

Mr Shoebridge refers to the changing use of Tasers as “mission creep” and said that “clearly the rollout to all police has meant an enormous increase in the number of people being hit with 50,000 volts. The data shows that young people, aboriginal people and those with a mental illness are most at risk.”

“Police Taser guidelines do not even recommend avoiding the chest of the person Tasered, despite this being a core safety warning from the manufacturer. Again and again investigations into Taser usage have resulted in damning reports, yet the Government has to date been unwilling to make any changes to protect the public,” Mr Shoebridge said.

Emma Ryan, a criminologist from the Victorian Department of Justice, says that Tasers have a strong tendency towards being used for “compliance purposes”, in situations where officers are not endangered, and that this is most likely to occur when Tasers “move beyond specialist squads to becoming a general issue weapon.”

Ms Ryan acknowledges that Tasers can sometimes save lives when they are deployed instead of guns. However, she points out that deaths have also occurred following the use of Tasers. “No matter how strict the guidelines, they will always be flouted. This is a sad reality of policing, and one that should certainly be borne in mind when endorsing the general carriage of Tasers.”

Human rights organisations are also concerned, but they do not necessarily advocate for the abolition of Tasers. According to Patrick Wilcken, researcher in arms control, security trade and human rights at Amnesty International, “we have been following with concern the series of cases of inappropriate Taser use in Australia.” While Mr Wilcken was unable to comment on the specific case of Einpwi Amom, he did outline Amnesty International’s policy.

“Following extensive research on the use of CED projectile weapons—particularly in the United States—where over 500 people have died after being Tasered by law enforcement officers, Amnesty International recommends that any use of these weapons must be very strictly regulated and limited to situations where the only alternative would be the use of firearms,” said Mr Wilcken. It should be noted that despite Amnesty International’s claims, lawsuits against the Taser company alleging wrongful death have been dismissed by US courts.

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia have found that Tasers are useful not just as an alternative to the use of firearms, but also as an alternative to physical methods. Their study concluded that using a Taser to subdue a subject is safer than using police batons and fists. After examining 24,000 cases where police used force, they found that using a Taser reduced the risk of injury by 65 per cent. Questions remain about why some deaths have been linked to Tasers, and in what circumstances a subject needs to be subdued.

“Tasers should never be used on people who are already restrained,” Mr Wilcken said, echoing the findings of the NSW Ombudsman’s report. “Amnesty International recognises the importance of law enforcement officials having a range of tools and options at their disposal. CED weapons may be effective in avoiding the use of firearms by police, but we have serious concerns about the safety of CEDs and their potential for abuse.”

Mr Wilcken referred specific questions to Amnesty Australia, who have issued a statement claiming that “police are clearly not following the recommendations made by the Coroner after the tragic death last year of Roberto Laudisio Curti. The recommendations are clear: Tasers should not be used to force compliance, nor must they be used when a person is handcuffed or otherwise restrained. The police in this instance failed on both counts.”

Resisting arrest is a dangerous business, and certainly a foolish thing to do. Einpwi Amom is responsible for his actions, but teenagers often do foolish things, especially under the influence of drugs or alcohol. The function of the police force is to apprehend suspects and bring them before the court system, not to punish them with electric shocks. Whether Einpwi Amom’s mistakes on that cold June night warranted a 50,000-volt Tasering is a matter for public debate and for investigation by the Police Integrity Commission.

On December 13, 2013, the PIC issued a media release following Operation ANAFI, their investigation into the behaviour of the officers involved in the chase and eventual death of Roberto Curti. The PIC was advised by the Director of Public Prosecutions that there is sufficient evidence to charge two Senior Constables with common assault and a Constable and Senior Constable with assault occasioning bodily harm. Higher charges were not considered because the NSW coroner could not determine a single cause of death. The four officers pleaded not guilty through their lawyer at Downing Centre Local Court on January 28, 2014. Their case will continue on March 25.

Einpwi Amom was not killed or seriously injured in his Tasering incident, and the PIC investigation into his arrest has not yet run its course. Supporters of Tasers and the current procedures may view this as the system of oversight doing its job, providing checks and balances on police behaviour. Critics, of course, would view it as evidence that some members of the general police force will always be tempted to misuse such weapons, whether through inexperience, fear or malice, and that these weapons should only be used by specialist officers and in specific circumstances. Either way, both sides agree that police have a difficult job that involves walking a very fine line.

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