Police violence, again

Less newsworthy is the brutal and often illegal violence performed daily. Favourite targets are Aboriginals, young people and th

Police violence has come under the spotlight once again, as it tends to do every six months or so. Sometimes it is when two or more incidents occur together, or it is when the media have decided that the last story about misbehaving police has been forgotten, and now is the time for a new one. Less newsworthy is the brutal and often illegal violence performed daily. Favourite targets are Aboriginals, young people and the mentally ill.

On October 6, it was reported that a 13-year-old girl was capsicum sprayed by Victorian Police in the Melbourne suburb of Keysborough. The week before, police sprayed a 12-year-old boy near Bendigo. Deputy Police Commissioner Kieran Walshe said: “Our people have done a pretty good job in both incidents.”

These stories came to public attention not because of their routine brutality, but because of media attention following the release of 2008 CCTV footage of an Aboriginal man, Kevin Spratt, being tasered 13 times at a police watch house in Perth. Nine police officers were involved in the tasering or stood by and watched. The CCTV footage has just been released by the WA Crime and Misconduct Commission (CMC). Even WA Police spokespeople had to say it was unacceptable. The same man, within weeks, was tasered again 11 times by prison guards.

Another case disclosed by the publication of the CMC report into taser use was that of a man who was running away from police. He was tasered, broke his tooth in the fall, and tasered again while on the ground.

This was in apparent breach of taser guidelines, which urge police officers to use their tasers only for self-defence or the defence of others. It is hard to see how a man running away is a danger to police officers. Or what was threatening about a 16-year-old Queensland girl who was tasered while sitting next to an injured friend waiting for an ambulance to arrive.

The release of the 2008 CCTV footage fuelled the earlier concern about Steve Bosevski, a railway contractor, who was tasered/battened/capsicum sprayed (reports are conflicting) while he was celebrating the Dragons’ win over the Sydney Roosters with his brother. His brother said that Bosevski was not drunk or aggressive and just “having a good time”. He paid for that with his life, and an official enquiry is examining any wrongdoing by police.

Previous taserings have included Queenslander Antonio Galeano, 39, who died after being tasered 28 times in 2009 and Ronald Mitchell, who burst into flames after he was tasered by WA police in Warburton after sniffing petrol.

The just released CCTV footage received widespread coverage in Australia, and was shown in full on BBC World TV. As is usual, the police investigated themselves, finding two constables guilty of using unreasonable force. One has since been promoted to sergeant. They were fined $1,200 and $750. Two senior officers were found to have offered inadequate supervision.

Self-serving myths

The close media attention of recent police violence has shown the police using a number of self-serving myths that attempt to justify their daily violence. For governments, going along with these myths — and the compensation payouts and bad publicity — is simply the price to be paid for having a police force to clamp down on the social tensions which inevitably arise in a society polarised into rich and poor. If there were rational drug laws, an economically just society and better help for the mentally ill, there would be very little need for the bloated police numbers we have today.

Myth 1: decent people and criminals

One such myth is that there are “decent” people and “criminals”. Sometimes “criminals” includes “trouble-makers” — those people who question police authority. That’s why the police feel free to use force at protests or towards those individuals who don’t show the proper level of “respect”.

In the case of the Aboriginal man Kevin Spratt, an attempt at justifying the repeated tasering was offered by police. “This person”, said Deputy Police Commissioner Chris Dawson, “had an extensive criminal record.”

Disclosing the criminal record of a man filmed writhing on the ground in agony not only further humiliates a mentally ill man and invades his privacy, it is simply not relevant to the officers’ wrongful conduct.

Myth 2: Tasers are used instead of guns

Another self-serving myth is that it is necessary to taser people instead of shooting them.

If this were true we would expect the number of taserings to increase while the number of gun shootings to decrease. What do the CMC statistics show?

The WA CMC report found that where the police used violence in 2009, tasers were used 65% of the time. Meanwhile, the use of guns by the police increased from 6% to 12% in the same time frame. If tasers really worked as a substitute for shooting people with guns — as their defenders claim — then the number of shootings would be declining.

Yet this myth is still peddled, from Sydney’s Daily Telegraph editorials, to WA Police Union president Russell Armstrong, who was quoted on WAtoday.com on October 5 saying: “I don’t want to go back to where our officers have got to make a decision whether or not to use a firearm because the public and some quarters of the community don’t want police armed with tasers.”

The WA report also found that police used a taser against a woman who was seven months pregnant. This type of use has been described as the result of a “robocop” mentality by Dennis Eggington of the WA Aboriginal Legal Service, WAtoday.com reported. The 18-year-old woman, from Mount Barker in WA’s South-West, ended up, according to Eggington, “with burn marks from the tasering”.

Media spin

Apart from the self-serving myths surrounding police violence, there is police media spin. NSW Police Commissioner Scipione was reported in the October 5 Sydney Morning Herald as saying that he though that a tasering the previous night, followed by death , in Helen Street, Sefton, was justifiable.

“I certainly believe the consequences could have been tragic for one or both of the officers involved” if a Taser had not been used.

Chief Inspector Fitzgerald, commenting on the same incident, said that “at this point the police are very comfortable with the circumstances surround this incident”.

As with all incidents, the standard response of police to overwhelming evidence of police wrongdoing is to make no comment, and say that there will be an internal investigation and any comment would be prejudicial and the public should not prejudge. However, when the evidence is ambiguous, senior police officers are able to offer instant judgements on the wisdom of police actions. Any subsequent backtracking or retractions weeks or months down the road receives little attention as the story is no longer newsworthy.

Media spin and myth no. 3: ‘dangerous’ police work

Another self-serving myth is that police work is particularly dangerous. NSW Police Association secretary Peter Remfrey complained to the May 4 Daily Telegraph that the legal system should not make police officers “second class citizens”. Police shouldn’t be “punching bags for society”, he said.

This was the hype that surrounded the September 9 death of police officer Bill Crews. Newspapers and television gave widespread coverage to the shooting of Crews by a fellow office during a drug raid where no drugs were found. Media reports spoke of the “ultimate sacrifice”. For a whole week, the police let the story run that he was shot by a gunman rather than another police officer. The NSW parliament paused to honour the dead officer, with Premier Kristina Keneally paying tribute.

Justifying the recent taserings NSW Police Association president Scott Weber told AAP on October 5: “I do wish to stress that policing is an extremely dangerous business and our frontline officers are confronted by violent persons on a daily basis.”

Yet the reality is different. Much police work is mundane, involving paperwork, training, 5-day weekends and the occasional drive in a car. And this is for so-called “frontline” officers. The longer you stay in the force, the high up the hierarchy and the more desk-bound (and safer) it becomes.

Although every death is a tragedy, Bill Crews was only the 12th cop in 40 years to be shot and killed on duty. In contrast, more than 100 people a year die as a direct result of workplace accidents, particularly in building, heavy manufacturing and mining. It is not for nothing that unions in these areas stress work place safety, yet rarely is there a state funeral, or a special mention by the premier, for these workers.

[The author is a Sydney-based lawyer and runs www.sydneycopwatch.org . A copy of the WA Corruption and Crime Commission’s report into Taser use, released on October 4, can be found at www.ccc.wa.gov.au .]