Police in Western Australia have been caught on videotape tasering an Aboriginal man, Kevin Spratt, 13 times as he was held in an East Perth watch house. The Corruption and Crime Commission of Western Australia (CCC) released the disturbing video in October. It has focussed attention on police abuse of their powers—and also shows the racism ingrained in the police force.
Kevin Spratt, surrounded by nine police officers, was unarmed and in police custody, sitting on a seat. When he refused to move to a nearby cell for a body search, he was tasered with 50,000 volts. After falling to the ground and then struggling to his feet, the taser probes were shot into his groin. “Want to go again?” asked one police officer as he struggled to his feet and was tasered yet again.
Dennis Eggington from WA’s Aboriginal Legal Service likened Kevin’s treatment to torture: “If you put uniforms on these police officers which were army uniforms … that sort of thing would be seen as being torture and sent off to a war crimes panel”. Kevin was later tasered another 11 times by prison authorities. That video has not been released.
On the day after the release of the CCC video another man died in south west Sydney after being tasered by police—the third taser death in Australia since they were first introduced in 2000.
From the beginning civil libertarians warned about potential problems with tasers but state governments—only too happy to please their respective police forces—ignored this advice.
The police argue tasers are an alternative to lethal force and will save lives. But according to the CCC report tasers aren’t being used as an alternative. Since first introduced in WA, firearm use doubled at the same time as taser use increased 25 per cent.
Nor are tasers “non lethal”. A Canadian inquiry found that tasers increased the risk of heart failure, while the US military advise against using them in training having found, “seizures and ventricular fibrillation can be induced by the electric current”. A 2008 Amnesty report estimates that, “more than 330 people in the USA are reported to have died after being struck by police Tasers”.
Tasers not only kill but can also cause serious injury. One South Australian man was hit in the eye by a taser probe, while a West Australian man ended up in hospital with third degree burns to 10 per cent of his body after he was tasered while carrying a can of petrol and a lighter.
Abuse of tasers
Even more concerning the CCC found the WA police are misusing tasers—using them increasingly as compliance tools rather than as weapons of last resort. There has been a four-fold increase in their use to threaten people while their use on people physically resisting arrest increased from 20 per cent to 43 per cent.
Aboriginal people are disproportionately on the receiving end of tasers—the proportion of taser use that targeted Aboriginal people increased from 16 per cent in 2007 to 30 per cent in 2009. Dennis Eggington fears this will lead to an increase in Aboriginal deaths in custody: “there is clearly an increased risk of serious harm or death by taser to somebody who is already in a poor state of health.”
There is no reason to believe that the brutality of the WA police is an exception.
Only days before the release of the CCC video, Steven Bosevski died after being sprayed with capsicum spray and hit with a baton by NSW police at NRL grand final celebrations while his twin brother Steve was tasered.
Then in mid-October a number of videos were released showing a Queensland Senior Constable, Benjamin Price, seriously assaulting two tourists at the Airlie Beach police station. In one video, a slightly built woman is thrown to the ground, handcuffed and pulled up by the hair. In the other a man with a bleeding nose and mouth is thrown against the wall and has a firehose shoved in his mouth—handed to Price by another police officer. In both videos Price’s fellow police officers go about their business without blinking an eyelid.
In all the above incidents police have either received light sentences or completely escaped discipline. The two WA police officers disciplined over the brutalisation of Kevin Spratt were only fined and one has since been promoted.
Giving the police more power and weaponry will only mean more people being brutalised.
On November 5 Aboriginal groups around the country are organising protests against police violence and are calling for tasers to be banned and all the recommendations from the black deaths in custody inquiry to be implemented. These rallies deserve everyone’s support.