Civil liberties groups and police watchdogs in Australia have called for an urgent review of the use of Taser stun guns following the death of a man in Sydney and the release of a video showing an Aboriginal prisoner screaming in agony after being repeatedly "zapped" at a Perth police station.
The footage of the Aboriginal man being shot 13 times was described as "outrageous" by Western Australia's attorney-general, Christian Porter, who suggested criminal charges should be brought against officers involved.
On the opposite side of the country, the New South Wales Police commissioner, Andrew Scipione, defended the "Tasering" of a Sydney man who died yesterday following a confrontation with police. He said the man, alleged to have carried out a sexual assault on a woman in her home, had been brandishing two large knives and might have killed one or more of the officers.
However, grave doubts are being expressed about increasingly frequent use of the stun guns, which deliver a 50,000-volt electric shock, disrupting muscular control. Around the world, seven people have died in the past two years after being blasted with Tasers – four of them in Australia.
In Western Australia, the use of Tasers against Aboriginal people, in particular, has doubled since 2008, according to the state police watchdog, the Crime and Corruption Commission (CCC). Among the cases highlighted by Aboriginal legal bodies is that of a heavily pregnant 18-year-old woman who was allegedly Tasered up to eight times as police were arresting her boyfriend.
The CCC released the tape of the Aboriginal man being repeatedly stunned while surrounded by nine officers. He was unarmed, and was not threatening the police, who attacked him after he refused to be strip-searched. The commission said it was likely he was suffering from a mental illness or was affected by drugs.
The Australian Council for Civil Liberties said Tasers were supposed to be used only in life or death situations, but were increasingly deployed simply to force people to obey orders. Western Australia's shadow attorney-general, John Quigley, said: "They're using the Taser as a weapon of punishment. They're using the Taser as a weapon of control. They're using it as a weapon of compliance. It was never so intended."
In New South Wales, police are under intense pressure following the death in a separate incident of a second man who was "subdued" with batons and pepper spray. Steven Bokevski had got into a fight in Sydney last weekend while celebrating his team's victory in the rugby league grand final. His twin brother, Steve, claims police aimed for his head.
In yesterday's incident, officers were called to a house in southern Sydney after a woman who had sought refuge with a neighbour reported a sexual assault. Her alleged assailant lost consciousness after being hit in the chest with a Taser. Police tried to revive him but he died in hospital.
Mr Scipione said the man charged at police, wielding two long-bladed knives. "In a split second, the officers made a decision which I believe may have saved their lives. Had [they] not been successful, I certainly believe the consequences could have been tragic for one or both of the officers involved."
The Police Federation of Australia said people were much more likely to be injured by a police baton or firearm than by a Taser. But Julian Bondy, a criminal justice expert at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, said officers were reaching for stun guns too freely. "The use of force is something used to resolve conflict far too often," he said. "[It is] being used as a substitute for effective training to resolve differences and conflict."