How are Taser weapons used by the NSW Police Force?

23 Oct 2012

This report presents the results of the second comprehensive investigation that the NSW Ombudsman's Office has undertaken into the use of Taser weapons by the New South Wales Police Force.

The first investigation was done at a time when Tasers were only used by police officers within specialist units of the New South Wales Police Force (NSWPF). Since that report in 2008, Taser weapons have been rolled out for use by all accredited general duties police officers in NSW.

The increase in the number of Taser weapons and officers who can carry a Taser bring a greater risk that Tasers may be used inappropriately. The controls and accountability mechanisms for their use now need to be of the highest standard – to ensure not only proper use, but to minimise any opportunities for or risks of misuse. Also of concern is the potential that an over-reliance on Tasers will diminish police officers’ skills in important areas such as communication, negotiation and weaponless control.

The Taser can be an effective device when it is used appropriately and in accordance with the law, the NSWPF tactical options model and Taser use procedures. However, Taser use must always be balanced against the potential danger to human life and the risk of serious injury to members of the community or police officers.

On any assessment, the Taser is an intrusive and invasive weapon. It pierces the skin when the Taser probes are discharged and inflicts considerable pain on the person subject to the Taser. It can also lead to additional safety risks, depending on the circumstances of use and the nature of the interaction. Around Australia, there have been well publicised misuses of Taser which have led to significant and justified concern within the community. For these reasons, a Taser must be used only in situations where there is a real threat of harm or danger to police or members of the community.

This investigation was commenced in October 2010 and it is the most comprehensive review of Taser use to date in Australia. We have evaluated data relating to 2,252 Taser use incidents, together with a detailed examination of 556 individual police Taser use incidents – where we closely analysed all police records as well as the video footage from the Taser Cam. Such a detailed review allowed us to not only examine the application of relevant police procedures and rules in each incident, but also how they were interpreted and applied by operational police and how the internal accountability and review system worked for each incident.

The findings support the ongoing use of Taser weapons by the NSWPF. The invesitigation identified a small number of misuses or breaches of relevant Taser rules and procedures, and found that the accountability framework was strong and in most cases worked well. The positive nature of many of these findings is a direct result of the strong accountability framework in place, the detailed rules and procedures for use, and the decision to have Taser Cam as a mandatory feature in each Taser.

Notwithstanding the generally positive findings, the investigation did identify incidents where the use of the Taser was inappropriate or where the internal review process was either inadequate or inconsistent. These cases point to some significant issues of concern around the interpretation of procedures and criteria for use of Tasers and the adequacy and consistency of the internal review processes.

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