Karen Webb’s Cop Out: Police Commissioner Won’t Watch Tasering of Elderly Woman

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New South Wales Police Commissioner Karen Webb says she ‘hasn’t’ and is adamant she ‘won’t’ watch the footage of her officers tasering an elderly woman who suffers dementia at a nursing home. 

The footage has been recorded on police body worn cameras, but unlike releases of other such footage, it has not been made available to the public.

The story so far

If you haven’t been following the story, 95-year old Clare Nowland was observed by staff last week at Cooma nursing home for patients with dementia where she lived, wandering around the building in the early hours of the morning, with her walking frame. 

Ms Nowland reportedly weighs 45kgs. Her need for a walking frame means she is unable to move rapidly. Few details of the incident are publicly available, but it is reported she was carrying a steak knife which led concerned staff to call emergency services. 

It is reported that two attending police officers were unsuccessful in asking Ms Nowland to drop the knife, and police say that as the elderly woman edged towards them on her walking frame, one of the officers tasered her twice, once in the chest and once in the back. The frail woman collapsed and hit her head, sustaining a fractured skull.

She remains in hospital in a critical condition.

Internal police investigation

In a press conference, Police Commissioner Webb stated that an internal police investigation is underway, which she says will be overseen by the Law Enforcement Conduct Commission. 

She also stated that she has been ‘briefed’ on what’s in the footage of the incident, but won’t be watching it herself as she feels it is ‘not necessary’.

And while the state’s top cop told the media she visited the elderly woman and her family, many believe the least she can do is actually watch the footage to see the incident first-hand.

This would enable her to make an independent assessment regarding whether the police response was necessary given all of the circumstances.

Indeed, doing so could inform her about how her officers are acting in these types of situations – where potentially deadly weapons such as tasers – that have been linked to numerous cases of cardiac arrest leading to death as well as serious injuries – are being discharged on members of the public.

Footage won’t be released 

Many are also demanding that the footage be released to the public, as police have done time and again when they are of the view it is in their benefit.

Indeed, there have longe been concerns about the way in which internal investigations are conducted.

The overriding concern is that these investigations amount, for all intents and purposes, to ‘police policing themselves’, and the supposed police watchdog, the Law Enforcement Conduct Commission, has no power to discipline let alone prosecute police officers. 

And then there is the problem of delays, with some internal investigations taking years to complete. According to published figures, there are more than 90 investigations into the use of force by officers yet to be completed. Some were launched several years ago and are still yet to be finalised. 

However, the Police Commissioner has said the footage will not be released. The fact took four days to front the media is also a concern, and many believe she only did this due to the public backlash. 

Disproportionate use of force 

Increasingly, we’re seeing a tendency within the NSW Police force, and others across Australia to ‘shoot first’ whether it be capsicum spray, a taser or a gun, and ask questions later. 

It is also possible that the closed ranks and the silence related to the fact the officer who discharged the taser on Clare Nowland possibly breached the NSW Police Use of Taser protocols. 

The protocols state (page 23) that a taser should not be used, unless ‘exceptional circumstances’ exist, on an elderly or disabled person. 

Exceptional circumstances are defined as “circumstances that would cause a reasonable person to believe that prompt and unusual action is necessary to prevent actual bodily harm to self or others”.

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Sonia Hickey

Sonia Hickey is a freelance writer, magazine journalist, and owner of 'Woman with Words'. She has a strong interest in social justice and is a member of the Sydney Criminal Lawyers® content team. Sonia is the winner of the Mondaq Thought Leadership Awards, Spring 2022.

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