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Sunday, July 17, 2011

NEW ZEALAND: The shocking truth about Tasers

July 17, 2011
Ian Steward, Sunday Star Times

A 14-year-old boy and a 70-year-old man are among the New Zealanders stunned by police Tasers since their introduction last year.

Figures obtained by the Sunday Star-Times show police have "presented" Tasers to offenders 797 times since March 2010 and, of these, they were fired 102 times. However, the police's Tactical Options Research database shows the weapons were ineffective on 36 of those 102 occasions, meaning the weapons worked only two-thirds of the time.

Green MP Keith Locke was concerned police needed to stun a pensioner and a teenager rather than subdue them in other ways. A 70-year-old could easily have a heart condition or circulatory problems – which had been linked to serious injury and death from Tasers overseas – and the boy's development could be harmed by being put in "a state of terror".

Locke said it had been observed in New Zealand's Taser trial and in overseas police forces that it was "just so tempting" for officers to pull out the Taser to induce compliance when other tactics were available.

"Do we want a form of policing that uses the terror of possible use?"

Police national firearm and taser project manager Superintendent John Rivers said Tasers were resulting in far fewer injuries to police.

"Not that many years ago I would have thought hand-to-hand engagement is a benign option – the hell it is. Far more people and police get hurt when it comes to fighting and scragging."

Police Association president Greg O'Connor also defended Tasers over hand-to-hand conflict.

"The worst injuries I got were from trying to subdue somebody who didn't want to be subdued."

Rivers defended the Tasers, saying they were a "less-lethal" option but they could have "unforseen consequences".

"We can't promise that some time in the future [a death or injury won't occur]. That's just the nature of policing."

Police said the 36 failures were due to "operator error" with the two probes either missing the offender or failing to lodge in their skin.

More worryingly, the stun guns have been fired more times by accident than in the line of duty, with concerns over officers' ineptitude with the weapons borne out by the statistic that Tasers have been "unintentionally discharged" 108 times.

All but one of these accidental firings has occurred during "pre-operation sign out checks" at police stations, predominantly where officers failed to notice a loaded Taser cartridge prior to carrying out checks.

The other accidental firing took place inside a police car, but police were unable to provide details.

Rivers said the failure rate was in line with international statistics.

"It's not infallible. There's no surprises in the way things are tracking."

The definition of a Taser being ineffective had recently been widened to include another option having to be used.

Several of those cases occurred because the incapacitation was "short term" and police had not moved in to restrain the person in time and they had "recommenced" their behaviour.

Rivers said the accidental discharges had not resulted in any injuries but he said it was "frustrating".

Ad Feedback Locke, an outspoken critic of Tasers, said the large number of times Tasers were presented showed a "mission creep" towards policing through fear.

"I would question whether the 797 times [would all] fit the guide line of serious danger to the officer."

He would not criticise the amount of training officers got with Tasers but he said: "You can never get enough training."

Feedback from officers on the ground was that "it has made them and the people they police safer".

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