Friday, July 3, 2009

Asking For Trouble With Tasers

As New South Wales forges ahead with the plan to roll out Taser stun guns to police officers it’s worth looking at the results of the review of a twelve month trial of the weapons in Queensland. Initially, Queensland authorities were also going ahead with the introduction of the stun guns, until a man in North Queensland died. The investigation of that event revealed that he was stunned 28 times, despite original claims that the device had been triggered only three times. Concerns were immediately raised about the possibility of the misuse of Tasers and the roll out program was put on hold pending further inquiries. Today, the findings of a survey by the Queensland Police and the Crime and Misconduct Commission have been revealed, and it is cause for concern.

While the report concludes that Tasers “can provide an important, alternative use of force option”, it also provides a warning that there is a risk of police officers becoming over-reliant on them and using them when not necessary. It also warned of the dangers of using the Taser repeatedly or for extended periods of time. During the course of the Queensland trial, Tasers were used 170 times. Of those, three quarters of the people involved were unarmed. One quarter of them had the Taser used against them multiple times. One case involved a drug affected mentally ill man who was subjected to a total of ten jolts from the Taser. In 17% of the cases, the subject was already in handcuffs when hit with the stun gun.

The question obviously is why there were so many deployments in circumstances which would not seem to justify the use of a dangerous and potentially lethal weapon, especially against those who are unarmed or already restrained. This report would seem to justify the fears expressed by some that the widespread introduction of Tasers will inevitably lead to the temptation for police officers to use them excessively and unnecessarily. Tasers are often described as a non-lethal or less-than-lethal option for police, and this is an attitude which in itself might foster a certain complacency and a casual attitude towards their use. But firing the weapon ten times, or 28 times, would seem to indicate that there is a more serious problem.

The Queensland report recommends more and better training for police to prevent misuse and overuse, data from the Taser used in any incident will be downloaded and audited, a “significant event” review panel will assess each incident, and there will of course be a mountain of paperwork, which by itself might discourage some officers from using the weapon in the first place. It is likely that this report will result in better training for Queensland police, which is certainly a good thing, but it is unlikely to prevent the distribution of Tasers being resumed at some stage.

In New South Wales, the roll out is going ahead now, but it would appear that unless the lessons from the Queensland experience are heeded, it is only a matter of time until there is a nasty incident in this state. Even if nobody dies, the civil liberties and human rights implications of the potential misuse of Tasers are serious and deserve to be given proper consideration. Tasers do have the potential to provide police with a useful alternative to the lethal force of a Glock, but only if they are also subject to suitable protocols which recognize them as the dangerous weapons they are. Anything less is just asking for trouble.

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