Friday, June 12, 2009

When non-lethal weapons aren't

Today, Queensland police tasered a man to death. We don't, at this stage, know exactly what happened and who did or didn't do the wrong thing. However, the case brings up a whole raft of issues for me.

Firstly, tasers simply aren't non-lethal. A quick google doesn't throw up any hard numbers on the fatality rates, especially as compared with guns. I found a claim that Amnesty had thrown up a fatality rate of 15%, but I couldn't find any evidence of that on the Amnesty site. In fact, it looks like it's a lot less than that. However, it is definitely not insignificant.

One of the biggest problems I see is that they simply shouldn't be allowed to be called "non-lethal". In the interest of giving the police involved in this the benefit of the doubt, if tasers are described as non-lethal, it is going to significantly change the way they use them. In fact, in the news report, the police claimed that part of their motivation to use the taser on this individual was that he was harming himself. They were protecting him as much as they were protecting themselves. This makes it clear that they don't view tasers appropriately. They are a gun alternative. They are the last resort, which the person may survive. Protecting the person from themselves can never be justification for a taser.

Looking at the news report makes this a bit clearer.
...the man was extremely aggressive, was armed with an iron bar and broken glass, and had harmed himself
Add to this, that he was "damaging property", and that the whole thing took place on a property south of Townsville (ie not in the middle of a crowded street or shopping centre), and it's looking less and less justifiable that potentially lethal force was used against him. Seriously, would people think it was ok to shoot a man with an iron bar, not immediately threatening anyone, on the basis that he might harm himself? Just because he might have killed himself (with the broken glass, I presume, since most people don't beat themselves to death) doesn't mean that the police should have helped him.

The self harm aspect leads me to the other massive issue brought up by this case - mental health. According to other news reports, the man had discharged himself from a hospital against advice after being treated for mental illness of some kind. Now I can't speak to populations statistics here, but I can speak from family experience. My brother-in-law would probably not be alive today if he hadn't been hit by a car. He lived 20-odd years with undiagnosed schizophrenia. That is to say, he was undiagnosed by the medical profession. Most people who knew him had managed the diagnosis. His mother had attempted to get him treated, on and off, since he was 12. However, since mental illness doesn't make you stupid, he adeptly avoided all attempts to treat him, right from the start. He was finally committed and treated because walking out onto Victoria Rd without looking and getting hit by a car apparently finally represents "a threat to himself or others". Years of throwing out all his food because it had been poisoned and never opening windows and accusing all and sundry of trying to kill him - they weren't evidence enough of mental illness. Thankfully, for all concerned, he was lucky enough to survive his defining moment.

Right now, it seems, police can kill a man to protect him from himself, but medical personel can't enforce treatment. This is a difficult issue. I understand that treatment can sometimes be regarded as worse than the illness, and so people should have the right to refuse treatment under some circumstances. On the other hand, my BIL is a testimony to the evil that is done by allowing a person who is currently affected by mental illness to make medication decisions. His illness set in as a young teenager, and ran unchecked until he was about 35. His illness is not too extreme, it is controlled by medication. However, it has affected his developing personality, and while he no longer has paranoid delusions, he will always have paranoid thought patterns. He will never have a close relationship with anyone, he simply isn't capable of it. There are a littany of permanent effects on his life.

I don't know exactly where the line needs to be drawn, but it feels to me that presently, Government has chosen to hide indifference behind protection of individual rights. Clearly any person who is currently medicated and chooses to discontinue medication as a result of side effects should be respected. However, if there is clear evidence of mental illness that has never been brought under control, it is cowardly to claim that the mentally ill person needs to recognise their own need and seek treatment.

I absolutely acknowledge that there are cases and illnesses that make my argument invalid. I know individuals who would rather gamble with their own suicidal thoughts than deal with the consequences of the anti-depressants they have tried. I am not advocating they should be forcibly medicated. However, I believe there is an ocean of unchartered territory between Bedlam and what we have today. We are failing the enormous number of people struggling with mental illness monumentally.

And today, Queensland police killed one of them.

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