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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Tasered man 'burst into flames'

July 21, 2009
BBC News

A man in Western Australia was engulfed in flames when police officers fired a Taser stun gun at him. The police say they used the Taser on Ronald Mitchell, 36, when he ran at them carrying a container of petrol and a cigarette lighter. They said that Mr Mitchell, who lives in a remote Aboriginal community, had been sniffing petrol. They suggested the cigarette lighter started the fire. Mr Mitchell is in critical condition in hospital with third degree burns.

Bare hands

The Western Australian police say they went to the community of Warburton, about 1,500 kms (950 miles) north of Perth, in response to a complaint. Mr Mitchell came out of the house, and they used the Taser when he refused to stop running towards them. Mr Mitchell burst into flames. One officer pushed him to the ground and smothered the fire with his bare hands, police said. His sister told The Australian newspaper that her brother had been sniffing petrol. "He must have put petrol on his face, then the policeman shot him with the Taser, that's when the flames happened," she said.

Police Commissioner Karl O'Callaghan said Mr Mitchell was a known violent offender, and defended the police officers' use of the Taser weapon. He told reporters: "The only other choice they would have had is to use a police-issue firearm, and the consequences would almost certainly have been far more grave." He said the police internal affairs department would investigate the incident, saying there was "a very strong possibility that the fire was caused by the lighter in the hand of the offender".

Review call

Mr Mitchell was charged with assault to prevent arrest and possession of a sniffing substance. Mr Dennis Eggington, the Chief Executive Officer of the Aboriginal Legal Service of Western Australia, called for an urgent review of Taser use. Aboriginal people, he said, were often in poor health, which made them particularly vulnerable to stun weapons and electric shock. A Taser works by firing two barbs which penetrate the skin and discharge 50,000 volts along two copper wires attached to the gun.

Amnesty International has called them "potentially lethal".

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