In the early hours of 18 March 2012, Roberto Curti was wandering the streets of Sydney’s CBD in an erratic state after having taken LSD. The 21-year-old from Sao Paulo, Brazil walked into a convenience store and stole a packet of biscuits. A witness called triple-0 and the incident was wrongly recorded as an armed robbery.
Eleven police officers pursued Curti down Pitt Street. They eventually pinned the international student down and handcuffed him. It was found that whilst apprehending him, the officers had tasered Curti a total of fourteen times – 7 of those within 51 seconds. Curti stopped breathing and was pronounced dead at the scene at 6.10 am.
Figure obtained via Freedom of Information laws
Last week, it came to light that NSW police had spent a total of $1.2 million in legal fees representing four officers – who were subsequently charged over the incident – at their initial coronial inquest and subsequent criminal hearings. It’s been estimated that much more was spent defending the officers at hearings before the Police Integrity Commission (PIC).
NSW Greens MP David Shoebridge recently obtained the figure under the 2009 NSW Government Information (Public Access) Act, after Curti’s family asked him to do so. “They’re deeply concerned about the lack of accountability and that the extraordinarily one-sided application of resources goes entirely to supporting police,” Shoebridge said. He added, “the family have been really struggling to keep track of things.”
Speaking to the ABC, Curti’s uncle Domingos Laudisio branded the funds as a huge waste of taxpayer money. He questioned the benefits of the expenditure for NSW citizens, and said the public should be very concerned about how the NSW Police Force is spending their money. He also queried why the state had paid, rather than the Police Association.
Findings of coronial inquest
The case has raised concerns over police misconduct both locally and internationally. After the initial police investigation, the matter was mandatorily referred to the NSW Coroner’s Court. The court found that Curti died of “undetermined causes in the course of being restrained” by police officers.
On 12 November 2012, state coroner Mary Jerram recommended that five of the officers be considered for criminal charges and referred the case on to the PIC. She said the actions of the officers were an “abuse of police powers” and sometimes “thuggish.”
She also called for a review of NSW Police Standard Operating Procedures in relation to tasers, capsicum spray, handcuffing, restraint and positional asphyxia.
The Ombudsman’s report was highly critical of the police investigation into Curti’s death.
Released on 28 February 2013, the report found that police had failed to question the lawfulness of the officers’ actions and whether the degree of force used was necessary. It also highlighted the need for an independent body to oversee investigations of police critical incidents.
In May 2013, the PIC submitted its report to the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) recommending that four of the officers be criminally prosecuted. In December that year, the DPP said there was sufficient evidence to prosecute. Two of the officers were subsequently charged with common assault, while another two with the more serious offence of assault occasioning actual bodily harm. None were charged with the more serious offence of manslaughter, which many thought was the more appropriate charge – one which would need to be prosecuted in a higher court rather than remaining in the local court.
After a bid by the officers to have the case dropped was ruled out, the hearing went ahead in November 2014 at the Downing Centre Local Court.
In December that year, Magistrate Clare Farnan found only one officers guilty – Senior Constable Damien Ralph – on the lessor charge of common assault. This charge was in relation to his use of capsicum spray and not a taser. The magistrate said that while Ralph may have thought the use of a third can of capsicum spray was appropriate, “it is obvious that it was not.” Ralph was given a Section 10, which means that no conviction was recorded against his name.
Although the magistrate acquitted the three other officers, the incident highlighted the need for reforms in relation to the use of weapons.
A NSW Ombudsman report into the use of tasers – which administer a jolt of electricity temporarily incapacitating a person – found that between 2008 and 2011, there were 80 incidents of unwarranted use of tasers by police. And of these, 27 incidents involved using the more dangerous “drive-stun mode,” when the weapon is directly pushed into the skin. Indeed, the NSW Coroner’s Court found that drive stuns were repeatedly administered to Roberto Curti.
The report made a number of recommendations designed to make police more accountable when using tasers.
Calls for an independent body to investigate police
Curti’s case has also prompted calls for the establishment an independent body to investigate police. “We have inherent conflict of interests when police investigate police,” Mr Shoebridge told Sydney Criminal Lawyers. “Nobody can have faith in the independence of the investigation and that inherent conflict needs to be removed as a matter of priority, especially when somebody has died in the course of a police operation.”
Mr Shoebridge has been advocating for a stand-alone independent commission to investigate police for the last six years. “There are meant to be reforms coming in at the end of this year following recommendations from two upper house enquires,” he explained. “But we’re yet to see the reform.”
Moves to establish an independent commission
Last Thursday in parliament, NSW police minister Troy Grant said legislation is being prepared for the introduction of such a body, which will be called the Law Enforcement Conduct Commission (LECC).
He said the LECC would be headed by a retired or serving judge, and perform the dual functions of detecting and investigating serious police misconduct and corruption, and overseeing complaints handling.
He said that critical incidents would still be investigated by police themselves but these investigations would be monitored by the LECC.