Gangsta Grannies and Taser Torments

The habitual abuse of the elderly, those nasty reminders of human decline and doomed mortality, in Australia became something of a staple in the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety. But no Royal Commission could possibly deal with all the social and structural issues that afflict the treatment of the aged in a country where they are commodified and forgotten.

In the context of shuffling off frail and aged family members to the knackery known as the nursing home, those responsible for the deed are assured that their discarded elders will be happy in their new prisons. A conspiracy between what is loosely called the ‘aged care sector’, racked by abuse, and the medical profession, racked by compromise, is complete. All there is to do is wait out the time until their inevitable death.

Before being gathered, the elderly individual will face the hazards that only such an environment—one speckled with the Scrooges of management and the bruising personnel keen to shackle and sedate any dissident—can provide. To this can now be added another risk: the lethal prospect of the tasering police officer.

The very idea is not merely absurd but cruel beyond belief. But on 17 May, Clare Nowland, a great-grandmother suffering dementia, found herself in a critical condition after being tasered by a senior constable of the New South Wales Police. The incident took place at Yallambee Lodge in the small town of Cooma, roughly 100 kilometres south of Canberra.

The Taser has a lengthy, rather nasty history of misuse. In Probe Mode, it comprises two barbed darts shot at the recipient, who faces the release of 50,000 volts of electrical current lasting over five seconds. In Drive-Stun Mode, the weapon is placed directly against the victim’s skin, causing terrific pain and sometimes burns. The casualty list attributed to the Taser is an increasingly ghoulish one. In February 2012, Amnesty International reported that the death toll attributable to the weapon in the US had risen to 500 since 2001.

The Australian-based Police Accountability Project notes the significant risks that arise from Tasers ‘when used on vulnerable groups or in particular ways’. When police are given such devices, the likelihood of their use ‘rather than negotiation, containment, retreat and de-escalation’ increases.

The NSW Police Force handbook states that the use of Tasers is not off the table when it comes to the elderly or the disabled. This charming, violent fact does have one proviso: that any use be under ‘exceptional circumstances’. Such circumstances would include those ‘that would cause a reasonable person to believe that prompt and unusual action is necessary to prevent actual bodily harm to self or others’.

Peter Cotter, NSW Police Force Assistant Commissioner, tried to justify the actions of the officer in question by saying, ‘At the time [Nowland] was tasered she was approaching the police’. Was it at breakneck speed? No. ‘It is fair to say at a slow pace’. This sneaky, dementia-suffering terror was also using a walking frame, bound to strike mortal fear into any law enforcement figure. ‘But she had a knife’, insisted the less-than-convincing Cotter, miraculously elevating the level of risk. ‘I can’t take it any further as to what was going through anyone’s mind when he used the Taser’.

Other details were offered, none offering a particularly exculpating quality to the conduct of the personnel in blue. Two officers, after being called to the address at 4:15 a.m., found Nowland with ‘a steak knife with a serrated edge that she had obtained from the kitchen area of the nursing home a couple of hours earlier’.

Negotiations followed. Nowland’s state of mind was discounted and ignored, treated as that of a figure capable of conducting a negotiation with paramedics and the police. She duly ‘approached the doorway where the police were at that stage, and the officer, the one officer, discharged the Taser’. Nowland fell to the floor, hitting her head and losing consciousness. ‘The injury that she suffered as a result of hitting her head on the floor has rendered her bedridden at the moment’, stated Cotter.

Karen Webb, the NSW Police Commissioner, added to this grim comedy of violence. ‘The best detectives in NSW are on this case’, she declared. ‘I have every confidence it is being handled in the appropriate manner’. The history of police force conduct stands as a repudiation of that assertion.

This incident means that Nowland is now facing a round-robin, rotational vigil mounted by her own family: eight children and an enormous brood of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Whether this improves her safety, or health, remains to be seen.

A local community advocate, Andrew Thaler, holds little hope for her recovery: ‘I don’t think there’s going to be a recovery. Tasers take out bulls and fully grown men. She’s a slip of a woman’.

A number of conversations have been generated by the incident, mostly avoiding the reality of Tasers. There is much chat about dementia and the need for better understanding. ‘It is not just about memory’, says one touted expert on the ABC news network. ‘We need people to understand that our brains are slowing down’. And not just those of dementia sufferers.

It would be useful if such an understanding would extend to the police. But these recruits are not exactly renowned for their intelligence, emotional or otherwise. Cotter is adamant that the video and audio coverage of the incident, captured by the bodyworn cameras of the two police, would not be released. It was ‘confronting’ and ‘not in the public interest’—which, in Australian institutional terms, tends to mean that disclosure should take place.

The US National Rifle Association offers little by way of sound advice. The next mass shooting is bound to be followed by an apologia and the manic notion that the solution is more guns, not fewer. Arm the teachers, the petrol attendants, the service store managers, and freedom’s name is assured. But in the context of Nowland, another idea comes to mind: give the elderly, dismissed, ignored and forgotten in their nursing homes, Tasers.

About the author

Binoy Kampmark

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.

More articles by Binoy Kampmark

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