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Thursday, July 08, 2010

Australia: Target unarmed most of the time Tasers used in controversial trial

July 9, 2010
DYLAN WELCH, Sydney Morning Herald

Only one-third of people stunned or threatened with Tasers by NSW police were armed at the time during a controversial 2008 trial of the weapon.

When he announced the trial the Police Commissioner, Andrew Scipione, said the weapon would be a valuable replacement to the use of lethal force by police, but data obtained under Freedom of Information shows that most of the time Tasers were used the target was unarmed.

The new statistics come as Greens MP Sylvia Hale, in a letter to the Minister for Police, Michael Daley, called for an inquiry into the trial and resultant cover-up and for Mr Scipione to stand aside.

She based her letter upon documents obtained by the Herald in an investigation into a Taser trial between 2008-2009 that was designed to assuage community concern about the weapon.

"I recognise that ministers are very dependent upon advice provided by senior public servants when adopting significant public policy initiatives," Ms Hale wrote. "It is imperative, therefore, that that advice be accurate, timely, and evidence-based. Regrettably, the documents released, albeit very reluctantly, to the Herald indicate that Commissioner Scipione's advice failed to satisfy those criteria."

Tasers were introduced to NSW police in 2001 but were used only about 50 times by two specialist units until the 2008 trial, when sergeants and inspectors at each of the 80 police commands were given access.

Today 8000 police officers are trained to use the weapon. Since its introduction, 26 officers have been disciplined for not following police operating procedures, and the NSW Ombudsman has received 14 complaints.

Senior police have defended the continued use of the weapon, saying it is a vital policing tool; and the trial, saying it was broadly "successful".

The Herald can also reveal that in five cases a Taser was drawn from its holster because the target was described as a Pacific Islander and considered too big to be arrested by other means, according to internal trial documents.

In none of those cases were the targets, or persons of interest (POIs) as described by police, armed with a weapon. "Police called to location as male was aggressive with hospital staff and is a 180cm and 130 kilogram Pacific Islander. Upon Taser being drawn POI complied with police direction," one brief record of an incident in October 2008 states.

Despite the statements by Mr Scipione that the weapon was an important alternative to lethal force, the target has a weapon in only a third of all 397 cases where the Taser was drawn from its holster.

In the other 263 cases police used the Taser to threaten or stun people who had no weapon. In the majority of those people threatened police with unarmed violence. But in a small number of cases, there was no violence or threatening behaviour at all, according to the documents. In one case a man had a Taser aimed at him after he was the subject of a noise complaint. In another a man was threatened with the weapon after he resisted arrest when police discovered him and a woman having sex in a parked car.

In a January 2009 police were chasing two men who had been involved in an "altercation" when the men stopped and "confronted" the officers.

"One male refused to comply with police direction to show his hands," a brief description stated. "The Taser was deployed and the male was arrested and charged."

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