A Weapon For Every Occasion

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Strolling down Collins Street on a visit to Melbourne in April, I found myself brushing shoulders with two police officers. I was struck by their unusual gait. It made me turn my head and watch them as they receded into the throng of pedestrians. Why, I wondered, were they walking like this?

And then I noticed their equipment belts: hulking, padded cummerbunds bristling with gadgets and weapons too numerous to count. It was difficult to look around me — at the elderly shoppers, the white collar workers, the Big Issue vendors, the high school students — and understand why the cops looked so much like soldiers.

We are used to hearing politicians talk about being tough on crime. Still, it’s hard to consider the increasing militarisation of the police in Australia without wondering whether their rapidly expanding armouries are really commensurate with lowering crime rates — or in line with the civil liberties our leaders claim to care so much about.

One of the more bizarre features of arguments in favour of the further arming of cops in Australia is that it will save lives. "Less-than-lethal-force", a phrase popularised by the American Taser manufacturer Taser International and uncritically taken up by the mainstream media, as well as many police associations in this country, is used to describe a slew of weapons which are not guns and therefore deemed non-life threatening: Oleoresin Capsaicin (OC), also known as capsicum or pepper spray, CN (mace), CS (teargas) and, of course, Tasers. In almost every Australian state and territory police force, OC spray and Tasers are standard additions to firearms, handcuffs and tactical batons.

In recent years hundreds of Australian police officers have complained officially and unofficially about the detrimental effects of overcrowded accoutrement belts. In February 2004, the Police Journal published a report called Overloaded which drew on almost 1000 written and verbal responses by police officers. The report concluded that most officers found their belts uncomfortable to wear and listed associated health problems including bruising, muscular pain, sciatica, blisters, rashes, neck pain, varicose veins and insomnia. The report stated that the belts police officers in NSW were being made to wear weighed in at nearly seven kilograms, enough to add 10 per cent in body weight to a 50 kilogram officer.

One former officer, Jacinta Lee Tonia, sued the QLD Police Service in 2010 for $302,942.52, claiming that as a police officer between December 1995 and August 2007 she suffered chronic back pain as a result of the fully-laden belt she was made to wear.

Tonia’s case was not without controversy — the Queensland government argued that her health problems were caused by obesity — but the extent of the problem has prompted police services in South Australia, Western Australia, New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland to trial, and in many cases implement, the use of load-bearing vests for frontline officers.

It is bad enough that the ever-expanding personal armories of Australian police officers is proving injurious to bobbies. There is also a growing number of casualties of non-lethal weapons, many of them among Australia’s most disadvantaged: Indigenous Australians, the impoverished and the intellectually disabled.

In March this year, there was both national and international outrage when Brazilian student Roberto Laudisio Curti died after being Tasered by police in Sydney. They were investigating the theft of a packet of biscuits.

Tasers have twice sparked fires in which suspects have been severely burned.

In November 2009, schizophrenic Adam Salter was shot dead in his home in Sydney after Sergeant Sheree Bissett discharged her gun instead of her Taser in confusion (she was reported to have cried out "Taser, Taser, Taser!" before firing the fatal shot).

These kinds of stories do not exist in isolation, and are not confined to Tasers. OC spray has been linked to dozens of deaths and serious injuries worldwide. The US Army has concluded (pdf) that OC spray can cause "mutagenic effects, carcinogenic effects, sensitisation, cardiovascular and pulmonary toxicity, neurotoxicity, as well as possible human fatalities… [and that]… there is a risk in using this product on a large and varied population." Being hit by OC spray has been likened to having cigarettes pushed into your eyes or, in the memorable image of one victim, like having your face set on fire, then Tabasco sauce poured into it.

In response to a spate of fatal shootings by police, Victoria became the first Australian state to introduce OC spray in 1996. At face value, this seems odd; equipping officers with an additional weapon in order to reduce causalities in incidents involving police. What makes the introduction positively absurd is that, in the first instance, the police themselves have argued that the spray should not be used instead of a firearm because it is intended to slow, or stop, a person — not as a defence against an attack with a weapon.

In the second instance, practicalities prevent OC spray from replacing the use of a firearm; there is, for instance, a six metre safety zone for knives but the spray is only effective at a distance of about four metres.

As Kerri Phillips and James Godfrey argue in a 1999 article written after the NSW Police Service decided to add pepper spray to their arsenal:

"… OC cannot, and will not, be used to reduce fatal shootings… Instead, it will become an additional weapon, which at times will be used to enforce compliance with police directions or to inflict summary punishment, and at other times, will be arbitrarily directed against intoxicated people or people with a mental illness."

We do not yet know the full story of Roberto Laudisio Curti’s death. Meanwhile the NSW Police Service is not sure if their current Tasers are powerful enough, and have ordered the new double shock model for testing (they are already in use in the Northern Territory). We also know that Amnesty International has condemned the proliferation of Tasers, and that the United Nations considers their use to be tantamount to torture.

Few Australians would condone the use of torture by our government under any circumstances — and yet our police are being armed with more weapons which have been shown to cause more, rather than less, suffering and death. The question of why officers are being made to carry so much equipment in the first place is being neglected. And why do frontline Australian police officers carry guns when the vast majority of their British counterparts do not?

The Overloaded report listed no less than ten items which most Australian police officers are now required to bear: firearm, spare magazine, OC spray, Personal Protection Equipment Kit (PPEK), handcuffs, extendable baton, portable radio, mobile phone, torch and leatherman tool. To that list, add the Taser, now a standard issue item in most Australian states and territories. It’s a heavy load.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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