Fatally Tasering Great-Grandmothers Is Par for the Course for the NSW Police Force

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Police taser elderly

“The role of a police officer seems to be growing wider and wider and we are expected to know everything about everything,” NSW police commissioner Karen Webb told Sunrise on Tuesday morning. And she added that state law enforcement officers “are not experts on everything”.

The last phrase of her comment seems a bit redundant, or even bordering on the absurd though, as hardly any of the NSW populace currently consider cops on the beat being experts on much of anything, except for the use of excessive force. And their latest effort has proven lethal.

Clare Nowland was carrying a steak knife when officers arrived at Cooma’s Yallambee Lodge aged care facility on 17 May, and the 95-year-old woman, who suffered dementia and was using a walking frame at the time, allegedly failed to drop the cutlery item on being ordered to.

So, on assessing the volatile situation, 33-year-old NSW police senior constable Kristian White tasered the great-grandmother twice, once in the chest and again in the back. And as she fell to the ground, fracturing her skull, the scene was secured.

Nowland, however, passed away on Wednesday evening, following days in hospital receiving end-of-life care. And as for White, he’s been stood down and is facing charges of recklessly causing grievous bodily harm, assault occasioning actual bodily harm and common assault. 

Yet, that still leaves an extra 17,600-odd armed officers on the street, who, despite training, aren’t experts on everything.

A threat to the elderly

The NSW Police Force is now internationally renowned for the heavy-handed approach it takes to the impaired elderly when armed with kitchen utensils they probably secured at the dinner table, as news of the incident has spread across the planet.

Indeed, the question of how a trained police officer of some seniority could consider it appropriate or even necessary to respond in such a manner resounded globally, except for perhaps in NSW, where residents are becoming so used to the excessive force of police that they’re simply fed up.

As two officers approached 78-year-old Danny Lim in a main thoroughfare of the QVB shopping mall in Sydney’s CBD on 22 November last year, they must have been aware that the slight man is a well-known personality, who wears sandwich boards covered in positive political messaging.

But the officers approached Lim, who was merely standing in the busy mall wearing his message board and within seconds they’d grabbed an arm each, lifted him slightly, as one swung his leg under Lim’s to trip him up and then the officers slammed the elderly man face first into the tiled floor.

Lim suffered a fractured skull and bleeding on the brain. After recovering over a long period, he’s now back out on the street spreading his message, although, at first, he needed two walking sticks to get around. And NSW police announced it would conduct an internal investigation into the matter.

A threat to the mentally ill

Besides not being experts on whether tasering 95-year-old women with walking frames is correct procedure, another aspect of Webb’s statement rang true, which were her remarks around the role of police “growing wider and wider”. But closer to the point is that role has always been too broad.

Whilst the commissioner has further claimed it’s not the usual for officers to be called to aged care homes and, therefore, White wasn’t quite sure about tasering the elderly, it is normal for police to be called out to deal with mental health episodes, and similarly, officers don’t know how to respond.

The case of Taree man Todd McKenzie, who was shot dead by police in his home in July 2019, is still before the NSW Coroner’s Court, but it’s clear from evidence already heard that officers responded in an inadequate manner, when called on to deal with him during a schizophrenic episode.

In fact, one of the local general duty officers arriving first on the scene, who was aware of McKenzie’s condition, proceeded to taunt him, telling him he was “speaking dribble” and lying, and even goading him to step outside his house to fight it out.

Eventually, specialist police officers stormed McKenzie’s house following a nine-hour standoff. They claim having initially tasered the man, who was armed with a knife from his kitchen, but as that had no effect, McKenzie, who was in need of professional help, was instead shot three times in the back.

A threat to First Nations

The police commissioner heightened public rage over the tasering of the now-deceased Nowland, when she told the press she won’t be watching the body-worn camera footage of the incident. Although she’d since retracted a little and said she might have watched it in the future.

And as Webb was announcing that there would be an internal investigation into the matter, she did express concerns about the incident, which was in stark contrast to how her predecessor, Mick Fuller, acted in addressing an incident of an officer assaulting an Aboriginal teenager in Surry Hills.

Fuller put the assault down to one of his officers just having a “bad day”, after the constable approached the 16-year-old in a park in June 2020, after the boy had been swearing at him, and then proceeded to pin his elbows behind him, kick his feet out and slam the teen into the brick footpath.

And while it can’t be known whether Webb’s approach to the press would have been any different if one of her officers had tasered a 95-year-old First Nations woman, it is certain that the organisation she presides over does, and always has, treated Indigenous people with contempt.

In April 2021, officers came across two First Nations teens, who were seated on a Darlington street, as one of them was having a panic attack. And after some questioning, an officer grabbed the 19-year-old in distress by the throat and pushed her up against the fence she’d been leaning on.

That NSW police have long targeted Aboriginal people with the use of excessive force is common knowledge, and the same can be said for those with mental health conditions, which goes some way to understanding how White went to the extent of lethally tasering Nowland.

The officer involved in the Surry Hills incident was charged with assault occasioning actual bodily harm eleven months later, and just this week, a NSW magistrate found Ryan Barlow guilty, as it was ruled the leg sweep manoeuvre used to throw the boy down hadn’t been conducted in self-defence.

On ending Tuesday’s Sunrise segment, host Natalie Barr asked the commissioner, who should be sent in if an elderly woman in a nursing home is “brandishing a knife” if not police, and Webb responded with “how is it that someone can get access to a bladed knife when they’ve got dementia”.

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Paul Gregoire

Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He's the winner of the 2021 NSW Council for Civil Liberties Award For Excellence In Civil Liberties Journalism. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, Paul wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.

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