Sunday, June 14, 2009

That Jumbuck In His Taser Bag

Despite the possibilities of our modern wired - or, more appropriately, wireless - future, it's instructive to remember that while news can circle the world in a blink of an eye, people aren't necessarily going to see it. A great deal of news has an inherently local basis and bias, and lessons learned in one corner of the world may be entirely unknown or ignored in another, even if they spring from the same seed.

Ignored in, say, Australia.

The Sydney Morning Herald carried a story yesterday entitled "State's police licensed to Taser," reporting that police forces across the Australian state of New South Wales will be equipped with tasers in "the biggest revolution of police equipment since... 1862." It explains that tasers have been in limited use by NSW police special operations units for two years and regular police departments since last year, and that while previously "Tasers had to be signed out by supervisors," under the new state of affairs "every officer will have a Taser on his or her belt."

Progress, right? On the face of it the introduction of a "less than lethal" alternative into the police's arsenal will enable them to defuse situations that might otherwise have ended with a bullet. The article states that New South Wales police "have drawn Tasers about 280 times, but the sight of the weapon has caused suspects to capitulate about 180 times."

That's a pretty significant takedown-by-threat ratio alone. You'd have to wonder why. Maybe it has something to do with the concern raised by taser opponents, who say they are "potentially deadly."

The phrase "potentially deadly" comes up twice in the document. The word "kill" does not appear once. I have to wonder if this is a result of limited research or biased reporting. Here in Canada, where tasers have been used by police since 1999, twenty people have died after being shocked by one. The case of Robert Dziekański, who died after being tasered by Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers in Vancouver International Airport in October 2007, is just the most high-profile. Similar cases have occured in the United States, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere.

In Australia none of this appears to be a blip on the radar. In my opinion, the circumstantial evidence alone surrounding taser deaths should merit something stronger than the bloodless "potentially deadly." At no point in the article is any reason given as to why tasers are "potentially deadly" - it's as if the comment was shoved in there just for the sake of addressing it, without really doing so. It's not as if the Sydney Morning Herald would've had to work to find this out; in a search for "taser" on, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation news story "Man dies after police use Taser" is hit number five. The next three hits also deal with taser deaths in Australia.

So it's not even the case that taser deaths are a "foreign problem." Australia, it seems, has already got plenty of its own to deal with.

I have to wonder if this is research failure or an intentional effort to strengthen one side of the debate by papering over the other. Ideally, newspapers should present both sides of an issue to fulfill their honest mandate, that being to inform the reading public. Realistically, that doesn't happen very much at all anymore. That doesn't mean I shouldn't be irritated when I find a newspaper being derelict in its duty.

if that swagman had been boiling his billy today, the squatter would've given him a taste of the electric rifle well before he could've got up and jumped into that billabong

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