Brutal police actions led to death

October 26, 2012
A report has found police have used tasers inappropriately 80 times in NSW.

Brazilian Roberto Curti was fleeing from 11 police officers down Sydney's Pitt Street when he was tasered, handcuffed, capsicum sprayed and set upon on March 18.

Minutes later, after being tasered up to 14 times, having three cans of capsicum spray used on him, and with the weight of what one police officer called "half a tonne" of police on him, while restrained by two sets of handcuffs and a baton, the fit 21-year old student and soccer player was dead.

Curti was being pursued after stealing two packets of biscuits from a convenience store having reacted badly to taking the hallucinogenic drug LSD that night.

The extreme violence that police used was reflected in differing opinions given to the inquest into Curti's death.

Emergency physician John Vinen said Curti probably died of asphyxiation or choking. However pathologist Isabella Brouwer, who conducted the autopsy on Curti, ruled out asphyxiation and insisted tasers contributed to the death.

She said Curti was covered in taser marks, bruises, and scratches and had swollen, haemorrhaged airways. She concluded Curti died suddenly "with LSD-induced acute psychosis associated with police restraint and simultaneous use of taser and [capsicum] spray".

A toxicologist said the small dose of LSD was definitely not the cause of death.

The inquest heard that the taser blasts, capsicum spray and weight of seven police officers on Curti would have created an increased "need for respiration" that couldn't be met as he lay handcuffed face down on the concrete.

Most of the police involved defended their actions. Officers said Senior Constable Damien Ralph sprayed the victim 10 centimetres from his face while he was restrained by multiple officers. Police training recommends a distance of 60 centimetres. Ralph told the inquest that given the choice, he would not have done anything differently.

Probationary Constable Daniel Barling, who had been in the force eight months, admitted tasering Curti five times while he was handcuffed on the ground being sprayed. Barling even handed Ralph his capsicum spray can when Ralph ran out of one he was using.

Barling, who has since been promoted, defended repeatedly using his taser in "drive stun mode" to enforce "compliance". Drive stun is where the taser is applied directly to the victim’s body, in this case Curti's upper back, to deliver electric shocks, rather than shot from a distance.

Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione later contradicted Barling, saying that tasers "cannot and will not be used as a compliance device".

The most senior officer involved, Inspector Gregory Cooper, said the use of tasers with Curti was inappropriate and unnecessary. Cooper says he ordered officers to "turn your tasers off", and shouted, "No, no, he's in handcuffs, he's in handcuffs, don't taser".

Despite the massive evidence of police brutality causing death, it is likely no police officer will be charged with any crime. Counsel Assisting the Coroner Jeremy Gormly SC, described some of the taser use as “ungoverned”, “unjustified” and “excessive”, but said their actions were not “unlawful”.

On October 23, NSW Ombudsman Bruce Barbour tabled a report on police use of tasers.

The ombudsman's report found police had used tasers inappropriately 80 times. This included taser use when police were under no threat, tasering people who were handcuffed or fleeing, and tasering unnecessarily on a busy street. Another person was tasered while kneeling with their hands behind their head.

Police even tasered a man who tried to hang himself while in police custody. After falling on a hard service, the man was tasered again for not being compliant.

NSW Greens MP David Shoebridge slammed the ombudsman's report for ignoring the Curti death and inquest.

The report says repeated Taser use and drive-stunning — both of which were used on Curti — should be banned.

Yet the ombudsman's report is toothless. The 2008 ombudsman report recommended tasers shouldn't be rolled out to general duty police. That report was ignored, and tasers are now used by all NSW police — as Curti tragically discovered just before his death.

Related article: The big business behind Tasers

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