Plenty of people may have some sympathy for the police officer who tasered the man named only as “Bill Holt”, after he was breath-tested on his way out to dinner last year.
They acknowledge it is hard enough work being a police officer, let alone with smart-alec comments like “you are jealous of my car, you are too poor to afford this car”, as one of Mr Holt’s group was alleged to have said.
But there are also a lot of people who worry that they, too, could be tasered in a random incident for a comment taken the wrong way or for irritating the police by flashing your headlights, like Mr Holt.
It is not only the fear of receiving a 50,000-volt electric shock.
As we have seen this week with the release of the Corruption and Crime Commission (CCC) report into Mr Holt’s tasering, it is also getting caught up in a media-police-corruption watchdog-politician turf war which usually ends up in very few repercussions for the perpetrators.
Just hours after the report was tabled, police announced the officer was being stood aside while they reviewed the matters raised by the CCC.
But if the Mr Holt case showed us anything this week, it is that high-profile unlawful taser events in Western Australia are starting to follow a depressingly similar pattern:
- It starts with a person being tasered
- The person is charged with an offence which is usually dropped later on in the process
- Police investigate their officers and find no wrongdoing
- The case is examined by the courts or the CCC which find an improper use of tasers and flaws in the police investigation and evidence
- The police dispute the findings and review their investigations
- The argy-bargy usually continues unresolved until video evidence is made public, prodding politicians into action
Have a look at the following case studies.
Kevin Spratt was tasered 14 times in one incident at WA Police’s Perth watch house in 2008, the year after tasers were introduced by the force.
He had refused to go into a cell to be strip-searched and was charged with obstructing police.
Police submitted use of force reports, as required when tasers are deployed, and found their deployment was appropriate.
After launching an investigation into Mr Spratt’s treatment in 2010, the CCC released graphic and disturbing video of the incident.
The CCC said it showed that Mr Spratt had not violently resisted police, nor were they in danger, as they claimed.
Police launched a new internal investigation.
Mr Spratt’s conviction for obstructing police was overturned in early 2011. He had pleaded guilty on the basis of false allegations by police.
The two police officers responsible for tasering Mr Spratt were eventually disciplined and later found guilty of three charges of assault in 2014.
Karl O’Callaghan, the police commissioner at the time, apologised to Mr Spratt.
Ryan Walker was 24 and was celebrating his sister’s birthday at a nightclub in Perth with his family.
There was an altercation between nightclub staff and patrons, resulting in Mr Walker being charged with assault and being tasered.
The charge was later dropped due to a lack of evidence, with CCTV footage showing he did not punch a police officer as alleged.
At the time, acting assistant police commissioner Gary Budge said the police would review the investigation, but would not acknowledge the video disproved police allegations.
“I don’t know yet that we can absolutely say that the video evidence isn’t in accord with the evidence that the police provided,” he said.
“My understanding is that the video evidence was viewed, it was inconclusive in regard to the alleged assault on the police officer.”
After the CCTV was released, the Walker family received an apology from then-WA premier Colin Barnett.
Where there is no video …
But while many aspects of the case of Fremantle couple Robert Cunningham and Catherine Atoms — who were tasered after a night out in Fremantle in November 2008 — have followed this familiar pattern, they are yet to see any results from their battle for justice.
Catherine Atoms and Robert Cunningham were awarded damages for false imprisonment and assault. (ABC News: Manny Tesconi)
It could be argued this is because there has been no video released showing their tasering.
Police took the camera from one witness who filmed the incident from a hotel room nearby, but chose not to download the footage. The witness deleted the footage after the camera was returned to him.
Mr Cunningham’s office was also broken into and a hard drive containing video footage was stolen many years ago.
The risk of taser ‘mission creep’
Tasers are only to be used to prevent injuries and never to enforce compliance.
As Mr O’Callaghan wrote in a police magazine in 2009: “The feedback from police on tasers as a tool has been enormously positive. They save lives. If you make a mistake with a taser it’s much better than making a mistake with a [firearm],” he said.
“But they are not there to be used as compliance tools. Use them properly and they are very good.”
A CCC report into WA Police’s use of tasers between 2007 and 2009 warned that police needed to monitor how tasers were used.
“There is also a real and significant risk that taser weapons will be subject to mission creep, that is, that a taser weapon will be used in situations where it was not intended to be used and where such use is potentially excessive or improper,” it said.
With a new government and an Attorney-General who has signalled he is not shy of taking on the police, perhaps there may be a breakthrough in how these types of incidents are handled.
In the meantime, treat the police with respect and keep your mobile phone charged.