With the furore continuing to mount over the use of a Taser on a vulnerable 95-year-old aged care resident, NSW Police Commissioner Karen Webb appears to have confused protocol with leadership and unwittingly made herself the issue.
Webb is standing by her decision to approve a media release that omitted to mention that Clare Nowland had been Tasered by an officer, justifying her omission on the somewhat specious grounds it was done to protect the victim’s family.
And despite all the attention, Webb seems not to have bothered to acquaint herself with relevant facts, and yesterday was unable to confirm if officers had pepper spray on them. Nor does she intend to watch the body camera footage on the grounds she does not wish to taint her independence if she has to make a future determination on the police involved in the incident.
Such a sense of propriety sits oddly against the mixed history of NSW Police investigating themselves. The internal police probe into the Cooma Tasering joins more than 90 investigations into the use of force by officers yet to be completed, some almost six years after being launched.
Premier Chris Minns endorsed the habitual stonewalling of NSW Police yesterday, saying he had confidence in the investigation but refused to commit to releasing it once it was completed. Given the police obfuscation, we do not share the premier’s confidence and believe that the Cooma report should be released.
Meanwhile, the brutal use of force against the frail 43-kilogram great-grandmother has prompted national outrage. On Sydney talkback radio yesterday a woman who belonged to Clare Nowland’s generation said the commissioner was acting like a politician. Bang on.
Nowland, a resident with dementia at the Yallambee Lodge aged care facility in Cooma, is reportedly receiving end of life care after staff called police in the early hours of last Wednesday to the 40-bed facility where the great-grandmother had lived for more than five years. They found her carrying a steak knife while using a walker. Police said a senior constable deployed his Taser after she walked toward him and failed to drop the knife. Her family said she was Tasered in the back and chest and suffered head injuries, including a fractured skull and brain bleed, when she fell over during the altercation.
There are protocols in place for aged care staff to follow when dealing with residents suffering from dementia who become violent with fellow residents or workers. Police use of tasers have their own protocols, too: In 2012, when NSW Police using tasers killed a Brazilian student, procedures were tightened, and officers told never to use them on the aged, people with disability or who did not weigh much.
Despite such protocols, the Cooma incident suggests police involved regard the weapon as not much more than a high-tech baton, for use when subduing difficult offenders, whatever the circumstances. If so, it could undermine public support for the weapon.
The has previously supported police being equipped with Tasers. Police should be adequately prepared to deal with violent crime and to have available a weapon less destructive than a pistol. The Taser is intended to provide this non-lethal option for dealing with violent opponents.
But the Cooma Tasering has cast the weapon in a new light and has turned it into one of the most serious reputation incidents for NSW Police for several years. Webb’s response has been lacklustre at best. We have many good officers, but her poor handling of this aftermath isn’t helping them.
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