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Friday, June 19, 2009

AUSTRALIA: Speed on taser policy stuns police

June 19, 2009

THE Queensland Police Service does an admirable job of maintaining law and order in the state.

As part of doing their job, police regularly put themselves in harm's way or prevent people from harming others or themselves.

No one should begrudge them having enough protection to perform their tasks effectively. But no members of the police should be put in a position where they are forced to use the weaponry they are issued without adequate training.

Nor should they be issued with faulty equipment. Yet the circumstances surrounding the death of north Queensland man Antonio Galeano last week suggest that the police involved might have been put in either one of those positions, or both.

The story of how stun guns came to be issued to Queensland police has more to do with opportunistic politics than good policy. Queenslanders remain in the dark about why then police minister Judy Spence declared the devices would be rolled out a full six months before a trial of the stun guns was due to finish.

To make matters worse, Ms Spence chose to announce that decision after a meeting with police union figures.

Her commissioner, Bob Atkinson, was nowhere in sight. The public was left to wonder whether the Taser rollout was about good policing or police union politicking.

Since then, the questions about the Queensland Police Service policy on Taser use have multiplied, chiefly due to several incidents in which the devices were employed inappropriately.

There was the use of a Taser against a 16-year-old girl at South Bank, an appalling incident in which she was held down by two security guards while a police officer activated the stun gun on her thigh.

The episode, one of nine which had prompted complaints about Tasers being used inappropriately, so concerned the Crime and Misconduct Commission that it accused the police of failing to learn from their mistakes.

CMC chairman Robert Needham said at the time that the Commissioner needed to send a strong message to all police that they must objectively assess and learn from policing incidents.

Mr Atkinson was forced to admit it was the most severe criticism the CMC had levelled at his force in many years.

But then came last week's death. The Taser used in that tragic incident was activated 28 times, although police initially said it was employed only three times.

The CMC is again investigating and the police are looking very much like they are making up procedure regarding Tasers on the run.

The fault for all this lies less with the police service and more with its political masters. If the Government had not been so hasty in approving the rollout, there would have been more time to properly assess Taser procedure.

As today's Galaxy poll in The Courier-Mail shows, public support for the Bligh Government has plummeted since the election, and for good reason.

The Taser controversy and the hospital planning debacle uncovered by Auditor-General Glenn Poole earlier this month are stark reminders that bad process leads to bad outcomes. It's a lesson this Government should heed as it goes about selling off billions of dollars worth of state assets.

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