In the early hours of Sunday 18 March, a 21 year old Brazilian student died after being tasered by police in Sydney’s CBD. According to a report in the Daily Telegraph, the incident occurred after the student, Roberto ‘Beto’ Laudisio Curti, was allegedly seen stealing a packet of biscuits from a convenience store on King St. The same article reported that CCTV footage showed six police officers chasing Beto down to Pitt St and at least three officers tasering him. It was reported in the Australian newspaper that police also used capsicum spray. According to the ABC’s news website there were reports that Beto screamed ‘help me’ as police held him down and tasered him multiple times. After this he stopped breathing and was unable to be revived. Taking to social media, Beto’s devastated girlfriend described his death as a ‘cruel injustice’ and has reignited the debate over the safety of tasers.

Currently all NSW general duties police officers carry tasers and their use is regulated by a document entitled, Use of Electronic Control, (TASER) Devices by the NSW Police Force (2011). According to NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell (reported in the Australian), "tasers were provided to police to give them a non-lethal alternative to their guns in dealing with people who were threatening or causing concern”.

Among its various provisions, the Use of Electronic Control, (TASER) Devices by the NSW Police Force document sets out taser training requirements and specific methods and criteria to control their use.

It states for example that police are only to use tasers to:

  • Protect human life
  • Protect yourself or others from person/s where violent confrontation or resistance is occurring or imminent
  • Protect officer/s in danger of being over powered or to protect themselves or another person from injury
  • (Provide) protection from animals

According to the ABC, incidents of taser deployment by NSW police officers have decreased from 1,151 times in 2010 to 881 times in 2011, despite the increase in the number of ‘stun guns’ carried collectively by the force (currently 1,272). However the impending coronial inquest and Ombudsman’s investigation into Beto’s death is likely to revisit the argument that existing training and controls regarding their use are not enough. Acting Police Commissioner Alan Clarke has warned against drawing this conclusion before formal inquiries have taken place.

While the brand of the NSW Police Force arguably took a blow following Beto’s death, the following week, the capture of Australia’s most wanted criminal, Malcom Naden restored some of its public image and community support. Naden, who has been on the run for seven years was arrested outside the NSW town of Gloucester, north of Newcastle and charged with the murder of a 24 year old girl, aggravated indecent assault and shooting with intent to kill a police officer.

Police endured harsh physical conditions during the operation which led them to find Mr Naden hiding in dense shrub. A report on ABC’s Lateline described the police effort as being ‘an outstanding job’.

From being publically scrutinised, to vindicated in the space of a week; the NSW Police Force has experienced a dramatic shift in community perception. Given the seriousness with which the community views public safety policing will always be under close public and media scrutiny.