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Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Taser debate, Down Under

October 18, 2010
Patricia Treble, Macleans Magazine

The video is chilling. Police in Western Australia surround a man writhing and screaming on the floor of a police station after being repeatedly tasered for refusing to comply with a strip search. “Do you want to go again?” one asks. Moments later the Aboriginal man, Kevin Spratt, is tasered again. And again. In total, two officers tasered him 13 times, while nine cops watched. The 2008 incident is only coming to attention after video of it was released last week by the state’s Corruption and Crime Commission (CCC) as part of a report into the use of Tasers by police. The reaction was horror. “That particular incident was wrong,” said Western Australia’s acting police commissioner, Chris Dawson. “Clearly, in my view, the officers overreacted.” Premier Colin Barnett echoed the sentiment: “It was excessive use of a Taser that could not be justified.”

And like the video of four RCMP officers confronting Robert Dziekanski—who died after being tasered—at Vancouver’s airport in 2007, this Australian footage, along with the report, has sparked a debate about how Tasers are used. The weapons, which disable a person with up to 50,000 volts of electricity, were introduced in Western Australia in 2007 to prevent injury. Now they account for 65 per cent of reported “uses of force.” (The use of pepper spray, another option, decreased significantly, while the use of firearms has doubled.) And Tasers are being used not to prevent injury, as intended, but to enforce compliance with police orders, especially against Aboriginals and the mentally ill.

Now the Australian Council for Civil Liberties wants a national inquest into use of the Taser. They could look to Canada for help. In June, after an exhaustive inquiry into the Dziekanski death, retired justice Thomas Braidwood concluded in June that “the five deployments of the Taser and the physical struggle with the four RCMP officers contributed substantially to Mr. Dziekanski’s death.” He also blasted the officers for their “shameful conduct.” Earlier he urged police to restrict the use of Tasers until their safety was studied.

As for the two Australian police officers who tasered Spratt, they were fined $750 and $1,200 respectively for using the weapon “for compliance rather than to prevent injury.” Police say criminal charges weren’t considered because Spratt didn’t ask for them. Spratt, now out of custody, is outraged: “I have been tortured in police custody and the police are trying to put a further injustice upon me by blaming me for the failure to prosecute the officers.” The attorney general has called for a review of disciplinary procedures.

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