Mentally Ill Man Dies After Being Repeatedly Tasered by NSW Police

by Sonia Hickey

30-year old Jack Kokua walked out of Royal Prince Alfred (RPA) hospital in Sydney shortly before 1pm on 18 February 2018. Forty minutes later, he was tasered three times in less than two minutes during an altercation with police, before becoming unresponsive. He was pronounced dead just over an hour later.

What happened to Jack Kokaua?

The inquest into his death has heard that on the morning of Mr Kokau’s death, concerned members of the public called police to report he was riding his bicycle in a potentially dangerous manner in heavy traffic on a Sydney road.

When police caught up with Mr Kokaua, they doused him with capsicum spray, hit him with a baton and sedated him before taking him to Royal Prince Alfred hospital (RPA). He was ‘sectioned’ at hospital and given a bed shortly after 11am.

Under the Mental Health Act in Australia, there are circumstances where you can be legally detained without your consent in a hospital or psychiatric facility. This is called being ‘sectioned’. You can also be legally compelled to receive treatment — medication and/or therapy — without your consent.

According to SANE Australia, in 2014-15, almost one-third of all mental health related stays in Australian hospitals with specialised psychiatric care were involuntary – which is about 48,850 hospital stays.

The laws covering involuntary hospitalisation vary from state to state, but generally, someone with a mental illness can be ‘sectioned’ if:

  • They have a diagnosed mental illness, need treatment and can’t make a decision about their own care, and
  • Are considered to be a danger to themselves, and / or someone else.

Timeline of events

Shortly before 1pm on the same day, Mr Kokaua became agitated and fled the hospital, after which police were contacted to bring him back.

At 1.21pm, one of the officers who previously attended to the matter saw the anxious man near Sydney University. The officer capsicum sprayed him again, and between 1.23pm and 1.25pm officers tasered him three times. Witnesses stated that police also used physical force to restrain him, including their own body weight.

At 1.30pm, police called for an ambulance as M Kokaua was unconscious and not breathing. The ambulance arrived seven minutes later. The unconscious man was taken back to RPA where he was pronounced dead at 2.28pm.

The inquest into the death is examining the interactions between Mr Kokaua and police, seeking to determine, among other things, whether the actions by police were reasonable in the circumstances.

Failure to record details or provide statements

Six officers were involved in the incident. None of them have provided written statements or agreed to be questioned, and only three of them made notes in their police notebooks about what they say happened.

Barristers representing the police officers told the inquest their clients received legal advice at the time in relation to making statements. The lawyers also said their clients were told not to write anything down.

NSW Health staff who dealt with Mr Kokua in hospital say that he was “calm and co-operative’, but later became agitated at being held against his will.

Police say Kokua was difficult to deal with, and that he repeatedly said “you wanna fight me? … you wanna fight me?” before, police say, “launching himself” at two of them.

One of the officers told the inquest she felt she was “fighting for her life.” But without adequate records and few eye witnesses, it is now up to the inquest to determine how and why Mr Kokua died and whether or not there is any police culpability.

Dealing with mentally ill persons

Incidents like these have led to calls for police to be better trained in dealing with those who suffer from mental health conditions.

Last year, Greens MP David Shoebridge obtained statistics through the Government Information Public Access Act (GIPAA) which suggest that more than half of the people shot dead by police in NSW over the past twenty years were suffering from a mental illness.

Nationwide, there is significant shortage of staff, beds and funding for residential mental health facilities, and yet estimated 3% of Australian adults – about half a million people – have severe mental health disorders.

About 50% of those have a psychotic illness, primarily schizophrenia or bipolar affective disorder and the remainder have severe depression or severe anxiety disorders. People affected by these illnesses have complex needs over long periods of time. Homelessness as well as alcohol and drug addiction tend to be highly prevalent amongst people with severe mental health disorders too.

Other international research suggests that about 10 percent of all police work involves interaction with someone suffering from a mental illness.

With this being the case, police are frontline responders to these people in crisis and need to be adequately trained to effectively deal with the problems they come across, rather than use unnecessary force, or find themselves in situations where they believe it’s necessary to defend themselves by “shooting first” and asking questions later.

Author

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.

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