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Issue #1542      4 April 2012

Taser death toll mounts

The death of Brazilian student Roberto Laudisio Curti a fortnight ago has thrown the spotlight back on police use of Tasers. The victim was allegedly fleeing the scene of a crime – the theft of a packet of biscuits from a convenience store. Roberto was also capsicum sprayed. Over the years, media reports have created the impression that the targets of this type of weaponry are people presenting a danger to others in their vicinity or to police.

The 21-year-old Brazilian did not fit this frequently invoked profile. He was reported to be running away from police when shot in the back. It is unclear how many times he was Tasered. A witness reported a female officer kicking the student while he was being held on the ground.

The Brazilian government has protested the tragic incident and demanded the most thorough investigation. Friends deposited hundreds of packets of biscuits at the doorstep of the Australian Consulate in the Brazilian city of Sao Paulo as a protest against the actions of NSW police. Members of Roberto’s family have travelled to Australia to try to get answers about his death.

The involvement of a foreign government and the intervention of a well-placed billionaire family appear to have had an effect. The NSW Ombudsman’s office will oversee the police investigation of the death. In other cases the police have usually been left to probe their own actions. This dubious situation is also the subject of renewed public debate.

The NSW Council for Civil Liberties has called for a moratorium on the use Tasers pending the results of the investigation. Hopefully, police actions will be examined in light of guidelines that stipulate that the weapons may only be used to “protect human life… where violent confrontation or resistance is occurring or imminent; protect officer(s) in danger of being overpowered or to protect themselves or another person from injury.”

Police forces in Australia have imported over 7,000 Tasers from the manufacturer in the US over the past several years. Each is capable of inflicting a 55,000-volt shock to a targeted person. The UN has labelled the use of Tasers as torture. While authorities continue to claim that they are an effective alternative to the use of deadly force, the use of Tasers in Australia has been mired in controversy and associated with several deaths.

Civil liberties groups point out that police are tending to misuse Tasers simply to get compliance. They spend less time “talking people down” when the weapon is available. The most shameful case to come to the public’s attention took place in WA in 2010. Scenes captured on closed circuit TV in an East Perth police watchhouse showed an Aboriginal man being stunned 13 times by police. While Kevin Spratt was writhing in agony he was yelled at by officers intent on administering a strip search. “Stop fucking around!” “Do you want to go again?”

The premier described the spectacle as “disgusting”. The Greens called for a review of the use of Tasers and a toughening of the guidelines for their deployment. The public was reassured that this type of outrage would not be allowed to happen again. But it has with the very latest case being that of Roberto Laudisio Curti in Sydney. It shows that the police are not getting or are not being given the message of restraint.

The NSW police force claims the use of Tasers has prevented a far worse scenario – the shooting of individuals with guns. The number of incidents where firearms have been used has declined very slightly since the introduction of Tasers but the number of incidents where Tasers and/or firearms have been deployed has been rising sharply since 2008 giving rise to criticisms that the force is becoming “trigger happy”.

Tasers have been added to an arsenal of weapons for police to use in circumstances of crime prevention and harm minimisation. They can also be applied simply to gain compliance or punish a perceived lack of respect or cooperation. That abuse must be exposed and stamped out. The very real potential for these weapons and others to be used for social control as protest flows from the deepening global economic crisis must also be held in check.  

Next article – BHP takes negotiations backward

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