Below the belt: police use of conducted energy weapons in Australia

2017-02-17T03:10:16Z (GMT) by Ryan, Emma Jane
This thesis represents the first critical examination of the proliferation of sublethal weapons in Australian policing. It traces the introduction of such weapons in Australian policing, with an emphasis on Conducted Energy Weapons (CEWs), in particular Tasers®. Using a multi-method, phronetic approach it examines whether the rhetoric used to support the introduction of CEWs is reflected in the policies related to the use of such weapons and in evidence about their use in the field. Phronetic methodology aims to explain social phenomena via the piecing together of large and small details that form the context of events; in this case the introduction of CEWs in Australia, the resulting policies established to control the weapon’s use (excluding Tasmania and South Australia where access to the policy documents was refused) and also evidence about its use in practice. This comparative analysis of CEW use in each Australian state and territory is directed at three specific sites: the rhetoric used in relation to the introduction and further justification of CEW use by police across Australia, the policies used to guide police in their use and the available evidence about how CEWs are used in practice. The analysis draws on a broad range of sources incorporating document, news media and interview material. The findings draw attention to the phenomenon of ‘mission creep’ occurring in Australia, where CEWs have come to be used well outside of their original intended purpose. The thesis shows that this pattern has already been observed in relation to Oleoresin Capsicum spray (OC Spray), which is the other type of sublethal weapon widely adopted by police in Western democracies. It is now being observed internationally in relation to CEWs. The thesis therefore adds an Australian perspective to a growing body of literature suggesting that sublethal weapons’ use by police is likely to have a corrosive effect on police/ community relationships and, crucially, on the principle of minimum force. It further argues that the weapons may have a profound impact on the delicate balance of consensual versus coercive policing styles. The analysis is set against the broader history of CEWs, and especially events in North America, where electronic weaponry evolved. Experiences in Britain and New Zealand are also examined briefly. The findings also demonstrate that the reasons for CEW adoption by police across jurisdictions, nationally and internationally, are very similar. It is argued that this is the case because decisions (and policy making) have been based on a series of misconceptions about sublethal weapons’ utility. The thesis argues that the problems arising in jurisdictions that use CEWs are so similar as to warrant a set of clear statements about the potential consequences of their inappropriate deployment in Australia. On this basis, this research concludes by making an argument for the importance of establishing strict national guidelines to control the use of CEWs and by offering a range of observations on what such guidelines could look like.