Taser Trap - Is Victoria falling for it?
Community legal centres have long argued that Tasers are not the panacea to reducing police use of a firearm. There are substantial dangers that Tasers can kill or harm when used on vulnerable groups or in particular ways. Evidence from overseas, and increasingly from Australia, suggests that Tasers are prone to misuse by police. We also know that use of lethal force by police can be avoided in many instances with communication, non-violent intervention and other lower use of force strategies.
Due to the limited public access to official information about Tasers, the Federation has sought from Victoria Police through freedom of information key documents relevant to police current and future use of Tasers. The documents that have been provided by Victoria Police to the Federation are available from this webpage and include:
- Documents relevant to decisions about the introduction of Tasers;
- Operational policies about Tasers;
- Data indicating how Tasers have been used.
The Federation’s report Taser Trap - Is Victoria falling for it? brings together Victoria Police internal documents, publicly available information and the experience of community legal centres to provide a warning to the Victorian public that a death or serious injury in Victoria proximate to Taser use is a real possibility.
Key documents relevant to police Taser use
The decision to trial Tasers in Victoria in 2002
In March 2001 the then Minister for Police and Emergency Services, the Hon. Andre Haermeyer MLA, established an independent Advisory Group to “consider whether air tasers are appropriate to be used operationally by Victoria Police as a further less-then-lethal option in dealing with volatile situations.” This is the final report of that committee which states at paragraph 42, “In the view of the Group, it would not be possible for the Victorian Government to make any decision with respect to the introduction of air tasers without a proper, evidence-based evaluative process.” The report goes on to recommended that “appropriate technical and health professionals will need to be commissioned to carry out [a] comprehensive scientific evaluation.”
The document has been heavily deleted through the freedom of information process. The RCMP now provides detailed information about its use of conducted energy weapons on its website, http://www.rcmp-grc.gc.ca/ccaps-spcca/cew-ai/index-eng.htm.
The Alfred performed an electrical safety analysis of the Advanced Taser M-26 by testing a sample Taser and comparing its theoretical electrical output to two medical devices that are used in hospitals and an electrical fence. The conclusion was that “from an electrical safety viewpoint the device presents an acceptable risk when used by trained law enforcement officers in accordance with the manufacturer’s directions for use” (page 2). The report also provides a literature review which concludes that “although several fatalities have occurred after using the Taser there is no proven connection between the use of Taser and the subsequent death” (page 2).The report attaches a letter from Dr Archer Broughton, Specialist Cardiologist, recommending that a person who has been Tased be admitted to the Emergency Department of a hospital for observation. The letter states, “It would be prudent to routinely observe all Tased offenders for 4-6 hours in a suitably equipped hospital emergency Department.”
The letter proposes that a “12 month Taser trial evaluation” of the X-26 Air Taser go ahead. Chief Commissioner Nixon suggests that the concerns of the Ministerial Advisory Group about the lack of evidence of the safe use of Taser are addressed by the Alfred Hospital Biomedical Engineering Department scientific evaluation. The letter states that “the findings show, that the Air Taser poses no greater threat to persons afflicted with cardiovascular disease, mental illness or affected by stimulant drugs.” The letter proposes that the trial be limited to Special Operations Group personnel and that a comprehensive evaluation report be produced to assess the viability of permanent and wider use of Air Taser.
This gazettal provides a 12 month exemption to the Control of Weapons Acts 1990 (Vic) for Special Operations Group members permitting them to lawfully possess and use Taser, subject to the requirement that police use of Taser is in accordance with relevant Victoria Police operating procedures.
Evaluating the Taser trial in 2003
Whilst the Alfred was undertaking the electrical safety analysis of the Taser M-26, a new model of Taser, the X-26 was released. The Alfred was asked to perform a safety analysis of this model. As with the Taser M-26, the report concludes, “that from an electrical safety viewpoint the device presents an acceptable risk when used by trained law enforcement officers in accordance with the manufacturer’s directions for use.
This gazettal provides an ongoing exemption to the Control of Weapons Acts 1990 (Vic) for all police members permitting them to lawfully possess and use Taser, subject to requirement that police use of Taser is in accordance with the relevant Victoria Police operating procedures.
The Minister for Police and Emergency Services, André Haermeyer, announces that the Victorian Government had approved the use of non-lethal air tasers (stun guns) for Victoria Police. Mr Haermeyer said an exemption to existing regulations would allow police to use the weapons, but the extent to which taser guns would be used across the force would be a decision for the Chief Commissioner.
The decisions about providing Tasers to general duties officers 2007 - 2010
Briefing Note from Acting Superintendent Craig Walsh, Operational Safety Division, to Police Operations Standing Committee, 27 February 2007, about the Provision of Electronic Control Devices (ECD) to general duty operational members
Paper providing information about Taser, its suitability for use by general duties police and options for roll-out to general duties officers.
This document outlines the progress on research that was requested by Police Operations Standing Committee in May 2007 “to identify the interstate jurisdictions that have conducted or are in the process of conducting general duties police trials of the Taser and investigate the findings of those trials with a view to using the results to add to the existing research on the suitability of the Taser for use by general duties police.” Western Australia and New Zealand are the proposed research subjects.
This document notes that “The TPA (Police Association) as a stakeholder has been provided with progress updates in regard to this issue when appropriate.”
This letter responds to the Federation’s request seeking documents containing “Victoria Police analysis/evaluation or equivalent consideration of the findings and recommendations of the Braidwood Commission Phase 1 Report, 23 July 2009 and the Queensland Crime and Misconduct Commission and Queensland Police Service Review of Taser Policy, Training, and Monitoring and Review Practices, July 2009.” Victoria Police state that as at 8 December 2009, “no documents exist that specifically analyse/ evaluate or give equivalent consideration to the findings or recommendations of the Braidwood Commission Phase 1 Report or the Queensland Police Service Review”.
This document presents the case in favour of Tasers, using the same arguments and in some cases the same words as the earlier briefing note prepared by Acting Superintendent Craig Walsh. Attached to the briefing note are the following documents:
- Appendix A - current levels of injuries relating to arrest and restraining offenders
- Appendix C – ‘OHS Hazard Identification and Risk Assessment of ECD’ which outlines implementation and non-implementation risks and proposes risk mitigation strategies.
A series of overheads, which describe police shooting incidents and provide an overview of the roll-out of Tasers to police in Queensland and Western Australia.
This six page document is heavily edited and only reveals factual information about the capability of two models of conducted energy devices, Taser X26 and the Stinger S-200. The document includes a business case.
The agenda proposes that the meeting begin with a demonstration of Taser by members of the Special Operations Group. Item 4 of the meeting is a presentation including a powerpoint presentation and briefing paper, followed by discussion, questions and answers, facilitated by Deputy Commissioner Walshe.
This six page document is heavily edited and only reveals factual information about the capability of two models of conducted energy devices, Taser X26 and the Stinger S-200.
Chief Commissioner Christine Nixon announces that police will be replacing the single shot handgun with a semi-automatic handgun, after considering the report of the Expert Advisory Panel considering the Standard Issue Handgun for Victoria Police. She goes on to say that, "The safety of police officers and the community is our number one priority. It is also due to these safety concerns that we have made a decision not to proceed with Conducted Energy Devices (such as Tasers) at this stage. We have undertaken serious assessment of these devices and are not satisfied that we need them on a larger scale in Victoria Police.”
Chief Commissioner Overland announces a refocus of training on tactical communication techniques over tools but that training in the new semi-automatics will start in mid 2010. He goes on to say that “I understand there are many views in relation to Tasers, however after careful consideration Corporate Committee is convinced at this point that these devices should not be generally available.”
Chief Commissioner Overland announces a 12-month trial of use of Tasers by general duties police in two regional areas of Victoria, Bendigo and Latrobe, from 1 July 2010. He says, “The 12-month pilot would enable Victoria Police to determine whether conducted energy devices are an effective and necessary tool for regional police officers.”
Tasers and human rights
The conclusions in the advice include:
- the PSNI proposal to introduce Tasers does have human rights implications (paragraph 186);
- Taser should be treated as potentially lethal equipment, rather than lethal or non-lethal (paragraph 191);
- the proper test under Article 2 of the European Convention on Human rights (ECHR) and the Human Rights Act 1998 is that its use will be lawful where it is immediately necessary to prevent or reduce the likelihood of recourse to lethal force (e.g.: conventional firearms). This is a test that is just below that for the use of lethal force (such as conventional firearms), but a much stricter test than that which applies for other uses of non-lethal force. (paragraphs 193- 194);
- If Taser is to be introduced in Northern Ireland, the relevant authorities must satisfy themselves that PSNI has devised clear and robust policy, guidance and training to ensure that any use of Taser in Northern Ireland fully complies with human rights requirements and that “all operations in which Taser might be used are planned and controlled so as to minimise, to the greatest extent possible, recourse to its use.” (paragraphs 197 – 198);
- Clear evidence of a capability gap should be provided before potentially lethal equipment is made available to any law enforcement agency. That evidence should take account of the test for the use of Taser that we have set out. (paragraphs 202 – 203)
Operational policies about Tasers
Police policies and procedures provide guidance to police about how to exercise their discretions lawfully and appropriately. Taser policies are considered particularly important because appropriate Taser policies provide an opportunity reduce Taser use in circumstances that are known to place people at risk of serious harm.
The Victoria Police Manual (VPM), a subscription service, contains operational policies for Victoria Police. The revised version of the VPM published in August 2010 includes Taser operating procedures for the first time, namely Chief Commissioner’s Instructions relating to the use of Taser in the current pilot in Bendigo and Morwell. The VPM does not include any policies or procedures for specialist groups.
The Federation applied to Victoria Police for SOG and FRU operating procedures through freedom of information in May 2008. Victoria Police provided the Federation with the Standard Operating Procedures for SOG and FRU which were current as of November 2009. These policies are available here.
Data indicating how Tasers have been used
In response to freedom of information requests made in 2008 and 2009, Victoria Police have provided the Federation with sets of data about Taser use in Victoria for two different periods of time.
- SOG Taser incident forms 03/02/04 to 05/09/09;
- Taser downloads;
- incident report forms:
- use of force forms:
- a memo about an incident involving a cell extraction.
The following are examples of incidents drawn from this data where Tasers have been used:
- To resolve incidents where a person is threatening suicide;
- To apprehend a person who is mentally unwell;
- Resulting in multiple deployments;
- Where there is an ignition risk;
- In problematic situations.
The Association of Chief Police Officers, Taser Policy and Operational Guidance - Specially Trained Units, December 2008 provides an example of how other jurisdictions collect Taser data. Reviews of Taser in other states of Australia have recommended that a form similar to the ACPO form be completed for each Taser deployment.