By Sonia Hickey and Ugur Nedim
New South Wales police have launched an internal investigation into an incident last week whereby a mentally ill man died after officers tasered, peppered sprayed and held him on the ground.
Police say the 30-year old was found at around 10.30am that morning wandering through traffic in Glebe, before being arrested, sedated, taken to Royal Prince Alfred Hospital and detained under the Mental Health Act.
They say the man escaped a few hours later and was found in nearby Camperdown. Assistant Police Commissioner Mark Walton claims the man was “non compliant and aggressive”.
He says the man became irate and was physically restrained, tasered, pepper sprayed and held down by six officers before losing consciousness.
He says police attempted to resuscitate him without success. He later died in hospital.
But eyewitnesses tell a different story. They say the use of force was excessive, reporting that police tasered the man “out of nowhere”.
“One minute it seemed like they were talking and then the police were in defence mode. The police tasered the man and he fell to the ground”, one witness stated.
Police will now determine which version is the correct one. They will also prepare a report for the NSW Coroner.
NSW Health has reported that the man was “calm and co-operative” most of the time he was in the emergency department, but later became agitated at being held against his will and tried to leave.
Attempts by security, nursing and medical staff to prevent the man from leaving were unsuccessful.
Police were called and the man was brought back later, when he was formally pronounced dead.
NSW Health says it will also investigate the incident. Many are now asking questions whether it is another case whereby police were intent to “shoot first and ask questions later” rather than attempting to diffuse difficult situation.
Earlier this year a former Nowra Police Officer was found guilty of common assault after tasering a man three times.
Incidents like these have led to calls for police to be better trained in dealing with those who suffer from mental health conditions and greater restrictions on the use of tasers.
After a series of incidents whereby NSW police misused tasers, including upon a 14-year old boy, the NSW Ombudsman was tasked with investigating the use of tasers and making recommendations.
He published a detailed report in 2012 which found that police had indeed been using tasers “recklessly” and “without good reason”, and made a series of recommendations to prevent further misuse.
In July 2016, police issued a policy titled ‘Use of Conducted Electrical Weapons (Taser)’, which set a range of restrictions on the use of the devices.
However, it seems clear that police continue to use tasers without sufficient justification.
The taser policy comes up for review on 1 July 2018.
Police dealings with the mentally ill
There have been several recent cases whereby the police response to situations involving the mentally ill has been inappropriate, including the fatal shooting of Sydney woman Courtney Topic, who was found by police holding a kitchen knife while she was sipping a drink outside a fast food restaurant. It later transpired that she suffered from Asperger’s syndrome and was experiencing a meltdown.
Another incident involved 36-year-old mentally ill man Adam Salter, who was shot to death at his father’s home, despite the coroner finding that he posed no threat to anyone. Charges including perjury and giving false evidence were eventually brought against four officers for attempting to cover up their actions.
Recognising the seriousness of the issue, weighed in conjunction with statistics which suggest that a large proportion of people who come into contact with the justice system suffer mental health issues, the Western Australian Police force undertook a two-year trial to send mental health clinicians alongside police.
This trial is up for review this year and will hopefully provide insights and impetus for other police forces around the country to work with mental professionals more closely.