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Monday, October 04, 2010

Australia: Police told to get tough on Taser misuse

Samantha Donovan, ABC News

Western Australia's Attorney-General wants a review of police disciplinary procedures after two officers escaped prosecution despite tasering a man 13 times in a Perth watch-house.

The call comes as New South Wales Police investigate the circumstances surrounding the death of a man who died after being tasered by officers during a domestic dispute in Sydney overnight.

The Perth case centres around an Aboriginal man who was tasered 13 times after refusing a strip-search in the East Perth lockup in 2008.

CCTV footage of the incident shows the man lying on the ground surrounded by officers and screaming as the Tasers are discharged.

The officers involved were fined following an internal investigation, but still work in the police force.

Footage of the incident was released yesterday as part of a report by the state's Corruption and Crime Commission (CCC).

The report found West Australian police were increasingly using Taser guns to get suspects to comply with orders, but the weapons were originally introduced to prevent injury and cut the use of guns. It also found that there was an increasing and disproportionate use of Tasers on Indigenous people. But the report concluded the Taser was an effective weapon and is most often used reasonably by officers.

Acting Commissioner of Western Australia Police, Chris Dawson, said the 2008 incident was unacceptable. "That particular incident was wrong. It was unacceptable and it is an example that is not typical of police use of Taser, particularly against detainees in the watch-house," he said. "It is an example from which we have learnt. We are dealing with violent persons regularly. In this particular instance, this person had an extensive criminal record and clearly, in my view, the officers overreacted."

WA Attorney-General Christian Porter said the officers' actions were "completely indefensible". "I would consider that any rational member of the Western Australian public who sees the extent of the excessive force would consider that the eventual penalties of $1,200 and a $750 fine respectively were insufficient," he said.

And Mr Porter wants police disciplinary procedures to be reviewed.

"There has to be some recognition that excessive use of force with a Taser is of a completely qualitatively different nature to just excessive use of force with your hands, if you like," he said.

"And I think we've reached the stage now where Tasers are such important instruments for the police force that disciplinary proceedings for excessive use of force with a Taser need to be treated in a special category."

Acting Commissioner Dawson said the detainee elected not to press criminal charges against the officers involved, but preferred to have the force discipline them.

Mr Porter said he was surprised the Aboriginal Legal Service did not urge its client to have the officers prosecuted.

"I would have thought that that footage alone was something in the nature of compelling evidence," he said.

"And why it was there was not a prosecution proceeded with, I simply don't have the answer to. And I'd like to know because, frankly, I find it surprising."

The chairman of WA's Deaths in Custody Watch Committee, Marc Newhouse, said the CCC report confirmed what he had been hearing anecdotally, particularly from Aboriginal people.

"It (the 2008 incident) made me feel sick. It's beyond the understanding of any reasonable person why they couldn't have resorted to other measures, yet they felt the need to use Tasers," he said.

"Unless there are fundamental changes in the use of Tasers, it's inevitable that there'll be more deaths in custody."

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