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Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Australia: What is the truth about the Kevin Spratt affair?

November 16, 2010
Andrew O'Connor, ABC News Australia

The truth can be elusive, morphing into different forms over time.

In the weeks since the Corruption and Crime Commission released the video of Aboriginal man Kevin Spratt being tasered 13 times in the Perth Watch House, we've been offered three versions of the truth.

The first is Kevin Spratt as victim.

In this version of the truth, he is the victim of a criminal assault perpetrated by two police officers as seven of their colleagues looked on.

In this version, the jumpy frames of a security camera in the Perth Watch House show Mr Spratt being tasered again and again and again after he refuses a strip search.

The tasering is depicted as an act of brutality, a violation of his human rights and internationally embarrassing to Western Australia and its police.

Shadow Attorney General John Quigley called it torture.

"It is of the same quality of torture as the criminal US marines practised at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad, that is torturing a prisoner by electric shock."

The next version is Kevin Spratt as villain.

In this version, Mr Spratt is an extremely violent criminal with a long history of violence toward police, a man who posed an ever-present danger to the public and police officers.

A specially prepared police flow chart was released to the media which timelines his criminal activities and interactions with police, making it clear he's repeatedly resisted arrest, assaulted officers, spat at them, kicked them and fought them.

The tasering then becomes just one incident in long continuum in which Mr Spratt has demonstrated his capacity for criminal behaviour and aggression.

Police Commissioner Karl O'Callaghan says while he was not defending the police tasering of Mr Spratt, releasing the information about his criminal history provides important "context".

"These are violent confrontations with the police. They tell a history of why he's in police custody in the first place. It's actually impossible to provide the public with an objective view of how police have handled Mr Pratt without telling them why he was in police custody in the first place," he told a media conference in October.

The same explanation was in Mr O'Callaghan's letter of apology to Mr Spratt:

"While in no way excusing what was done to you, this provided some explanation for why the police officers involved acted as they did and why they were concerned about the threat you posed."

Incomplete puzzle

The third version of the truth is incomplete, like a puzzle with pieces missing but perhaps more disturbing.

This emerged when Mr Quigly released the statement of material facts submitted to the Magistrates Court by WA police to support a charge that Mr Spratt was "obstructing public officers" while he was being tasered 13 times.

In this version, the police are liars who have fabricated a description of Mr Spratt's violent behaviour to justify the charge and their actions in repeatedly tasering him.

The statement of facts says he was "initially calm and co-operative" as police walked him into the watch house. It says after his handcuffs were removed, Mr Spratt refused to accompany police for a strip search.

It then says he "began to resist by holding onto the seat and bracing his arms. He again became violent and aggressive towards police who were attempting to restrain him, by kicking and flailing his arms.

"The Taser was deployed to prevent any injury to the police or the accused, however, it initially had little effect with the accused continuing to violently resist."

But, in a video of the incident released by the CCC, Mr Spratt is shown refusing to move from his seat, and then reeling from repeated taserings, screaming in pain and at one stage, almost begging the officers stop.

In its report, the CCC concluded that Mr Spratt did not appear to be the aggressor.

"At the time of the initial deployment, there was no information to show police were at risk of assault, or in danger. When the man began struggling, WAPOL internal investigators found that deployments were perhaps justified, however, the man could have been acting in self defence believing he was being assaulted."

Internal inquiry

WA police are conducting a new internal inquiry.

When it was announced by the Commissioner on the 18th of October, he said it would examine each police interaction with Mr Spratt, except the one where he was tasered 13 times.

That, Mr O'Callaghan said, had already been satisfactorily examined by internal affairs.

He explained that although there was no complaint raised about other incidents where police had used force on Mr Spratt, the new inquiry would be an additional check.

"We are now reviewing those to make sure because there's such a high level of public interest in this matter, to make sure they were conducted properly."

The purpose of that inquiry, the Commissioner said, is to ensure public confidence in the police.

Police have already reviewed the use of force reports submitted by the officers in those incidents. They've already cleared those incidents as being without complaint.

So, is the internal inquiry just another opportunity to provide more information about Mr Spratt's previous encounters where he was violent and police were justified in using force against him?

Or is the inquiry an opportunity to have a fresh look at these incidents and subject them to a thorough, exhaustive review?

In light of the conflict between statement of material facts and the video, the police must now satisfy themselves and the public that the other police descriptions of Mr Spratt's behaviour can be trusted.


The timeline released by the Police Commissioner cites a number of incidents of Mr Spratt's violent behaviour.

Even though the media has been told none was captured on video, each description provides the opportunity for police to produce objective evidence to verify the police version of events.

On the 30th of August, the timeline says Mr Spratt was apprehended on Graham Farmer freeway by police, "...but struggled violently dragging police in front of heavy traffic."

The internal inquiry may be able to establish if Main Roads traffic cameras captured this incident and whether any such video evidence supports the police statements.

On the 30th of January 2009, the timeline states that Mr Spratt was arrested in Bayswater and "....became violent, kicking one officer in the chest and spitting in the other officer's face and biting his hand."

On the same day at the Perth Watch House, he "....later spat blood and saliva into the officers' face entering eyes and mouth."

One would expect these injuries to be recorded through police workplace safety procedures.

In the case of the officer who was bitten, and those who were spat on with blood and saliva, they presumably underwent blood tests to ensure they'd contracted no blood borne diseases.

The presence of these records would provide objective support to the police account.

Following the release of the statement of material facts, a spokesman for the Commissioner has told the ABC any discrepancy between the statement and the video of the 13 taserings will now also be examined by the police internal inquiry.

If the internal inquiry is not transparently exhaustive in verifying the police version of events, and resolving the conflict between the statement of facts and the video, it is hard to see how will instil public confidence.


But just what has this incident done to our collective confidence in the police?

I suspect it varies widely from person to person.

Many people will look at the video in the light of Kevin Spratt's criminal record.

Whether intentional or not, the context provided by the police has cast Mr Spratt as a violent man with a violent history, a threat police were justifiably concerned about.

Many of those same people will find it hard to imagine the circumstances where they could find themselves the target of what has been euphemistically described by police and politicians as "excessive taser use".

As a middle-aged father of three from the suburbs who is a non-drinker and whose definition of a wild night out is seeing a movie with my wife, I consider it unlikely I'll find myself slugging it out with anyone, let alone police officers, in Northbridge or anywhere else.

But what if I was coming home from the movies, and happened upon what appeared to be a police officer assaulting a private citizen, as other officers stood by and watched?

What if I stopped and confronted those police officers about what was happening and was told by them to move on but I refused and they physically tried to push me away?

And what if I resisted? Not by striking out but by simply standing my ground, and frustrated and angered by my refusal to move, a police officer tasered me to the ground, and then tasered me again and again.

What would the other officers do? Would they stand there and watch like the seven officers in the Perth Watch House?

And when we got back to the police station, would the charge read that I'd behaved in a threatening manner, and that taser-wielding officer feared for his safety, and that I had to be restrained while resisting arrest?

Would that version of events be supported by the other officers, irrespective of whether it was true or not?

And in the absence of CCTV, whose word would be believed? Mine or that of the police?

Or, would just one of those officers step forward, and stop his or her colleague because it was clear the tasering officer was breaking the law?

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