Police misuse tasers to induce compliance



The Independent Police Conduct Authority’s criticism of Police for tasering a non-aggressive man in his own home reinforce the fears we had when tasers were introduced.

Christmas Day 2011 was not a day of cheer for Whakatane man Mark Smillie. The IPCA reported that on that day Mr Smillie:

Was driving too fast, and was then chased by the Police, but managed to get to his Whakatane home.

Was then pepper-sprayed and batoned on his own property.

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Was then tasered for an agonising 13 seconds (after the officer kept his finger on the taser trigger).

Was then tasered a second time (he was on the ground during both taserings).

It appears the officer got angry when Mr Smillie wouldn’t cooperate with being handcuffed.
Mr Smillie said he didn’t assault the officer [and the evidence appears to back him up].

One of the things I anticipated back in 2006, when the first New Zealand taser trial began, was that this fearful weapon would be used for “compliance” (to get alleged offenders to do what the Police told them) even though it was only supposed to be used when there was a danger of serious injury to the someone in the vicinity.  During that year-long taser trial there were cases where people were being tasered for not being cooperative with the arresting officer.  In other countries (like Canada) police complaints officials have noted a similar slippage in the Police interpretation of their mandate, towards using tasers to induce compliance.

There is a great temptation for Police to use tasers for compliance because when threatened with a massive electric shock most people will do what the Police want.  It is notable that most of the times the Police have pulled out the taser it was pointed at a person (called “laser painting” with a red dot on the target’s chest) rather than fired at that person.  In the 552 taser “events” in the six months to June 2013 (the latest figures available) the taser was fired in only 13% of the cases.

The use of tasers for compliance probably much more than it is being used in really dangerous situations is one of the strongest arguments against the Police having this fearful weapon. The downside for all of us is that the way Police use the taser is breeding  community distrust (as in the Smillie case) when to prevent and solve ordinary crimes the Police need the cooperation of ordinary people. This mistrust of Police is greatest in Maori and Pacifica communities, because Maori and Pacifica people make up 65% of the individual taser targets, according to Police statistics.

Resorting to tasers also tends to run counter to traditional policing, where officers would try to calm down a situation, or back off while awaiting reinforcements (as the officer should have done in the Smillie case). An officer armed with a taser is more inclined towards an aggressive response.

There is also danger of serious injury from taser use in that a quarter of the targets in New Zealand are mentally ill people, and another quarter are people on drugs. The circulatory systems of such damaged people tend to be more stressed and their heart can be seriously damaged by the 50,000 from a taser racing through them, as has been noted in the international literature.

Most disturbing is the Police hierarchy’s reaction to the IPCA decision against them. They refuse point blank to apologise to Mr Smillie, and say they will not discipline the officer concerned, as recommended by the IPCA.  This can only encourage more Police misuse of this frightening weapon.

It’s true that taser use has saved some people from serious injury, but on balance the downsides of taser use (and misuse) seem to outweigh the upsides.

[The TVNZ News video on the Smillie case – in which I am quoted – is available here.]


  1. Thanks for writing this Keith, I think it is extraordinary that the police can simply ignore the IPCA. What is the point of having the IPCA if this can happen. My on-going concern with the use of tasers apart from their more general use often in hardly last resort situations, is the use of them on people with mental health conditions. I wonder how many have been used on people who fit into this category. Previously the mental health people would be called out to negotiate.

  2. My concerns about this weapon (and it is one, so we should call it as such) continue to grow thanks to insight such as this.

    What happened to our pride that the NZ Police were the last force in the world not carrying deadly weapons (i.e. guns) on a regular basis? Do we not care any more, until we ourselves as individuals are on the receiving end of Police overuse of force?

    This is a big enough problem. Then there is the Police ignoring the IPCA here, and in many other cases. (the case of the mentally-ill man Tasered in his own driveway in Canterbury was also disturbing).
    The IPCA is under-resourced and lacks authority. If the Police can essentially ignore it, then there are no effective checks on their exercise of power.

    This is not how ‘policing by consent’ is supposed to work. The Police claim to maintain public trust through having high standards, and they should be held to them. If a member of the public had exercised equivalent force in the same way, they would have been prosecuted and would be doing time by now.

    Is it time for a powerful independent check on the Police before more people suffer?

  3. This was entirely predictable.
    In USA police abuse of powers is well advanced. They are way past only misusing tasers . Killing people without justification is a common occurrence. The reason I mention this is as a warning, because it will eventually happen in NZ . Whatever happens in USA, sooner or later happens in UK, and later comes here.
    These are some of the new Global changes creeping in. In USA the Bill of Rights is systematically being ursurped. In UK also. Ditto other countries. People can do nothing about it , because the Mainstream Media is heavily censored, and the general public are not fully awake to this. The early warning signs of this happening are already here. Aware people already notice things going on in NZ, that should not be..but they still believe that “voting” might change things. Ha. Oh boy..

  4. The New Zealand Police are well down the road to corruption, subject to political interference, incompetent, to many foreign officers bringing their bad habits, lie to the public and to often the courts to win trumphed up charges, as said ignore the IPCA because it has no teeth, rape and steal with impunity(if you ever have seen a bunch of officers on the piss you will see what a bunch of mongrels they are, worse than rugby players) continously lie to the public to protect their own and only in NZ feel the need to charge and overcharge (to up the chances of a conviction)anyone for the most trivial of offences. A huge overhaul is necessary and ANY police officer found to have committed any offence should have the book thrown at the because they are the law and not above it and should be punished harsher than the public because they hold themselves up as the holier than thou and therefore should be subject to harsher punishments.

  5. thank-you keith for this post.

    what beggars belief is that the constabulary can tolerate the assault of a citizen with a tazer over a mere driving offence.

    then we hear the uproar when a member of the police is in jeopardy and the citizenry just stand by and watch.

    in my opinion the nz police lost their innocence over the arthur thomas conviction.
    it is not too late to fix this festering sore.

  6. If the IPCA find improper taser use the minimum restitution is that the victim should get to tase the cop. Turn about is fair play.

  7. Sadly, NZ’s police union(or, as they dishonestly call themselves the ‘Police Association’) seem to be going down the road of their Canadian counterparts, by seeking the advice of America’s worst civil rights violators for decades. And the wealthiest ‘public servants’ there have ever been. There argument is, essentially, that Police must not be held accountable for any violent and/or criminal behavior, because they have stressful jobs. They still use the lie that it’s one of the most dangerous job in the workforce, in their attempts to justify spousal abuse and brutality against civilians. Never mind science such as the Stanford Prison Experiment, and the myriad of other studies confirming the consequences that come when barely-checked power is bestowed on we humans.
    We’re so very lucky to have the police force we do. However, if the senior cops and the union continue to eagerly seek advice form the notoriously violent, authoritarian police unions of America, then the civil, civilized society we Kiwis are so justifiably proud of, is doomed. We’ll end up with heavily armed cops(and therefore heavily armed criminals, and therefore heavily armed right wing dopes who think of themselves as saviors of freedom), people being murdered by cops, who’ll justify themselves with their own internal review(because union negotiations will eventually demand that happen), and almost all deaths, near deaths and cases of brutality, will be deemed justified. The police will become the enemy of most communities, and the communities will be blamed – and suffer the consequences. Meanwhile, politicians and senior cops will become more and more authoritarian, the private prison industry will lobby for longer prison sentences for lesser and lesser crimes in the cause of ‘crime prevention'(profits? How dare you question our commitment to a safer society!), and hey presto – not only do we get the corruption that National have been importing from the Chinese Communist Party, but the brutality and legalized murder of America’s extremely powerful, violent – and most importantly, wealthy – police state. Because ‘small government’.

    None of the above is out of the question. We’d be naive to think otherwise. I’ve been utterly shocked by just how willingly and ignorantly National voters have gone along with private prisons and schools – a militarized, much more violent police force is merely the next step in National’s shockingly overt – and disgustingly anti-kiwi – plagiarism of American Republican Party policy.

  8. “It’s true that taser use has saved some people from serious injury, but on balance the downsides of taser use (and misuse) seem to outweigh the upsides.”

    And yet all Keith can produce as the ‘downside’ is this single instance since their inception. Countered against as he acknowledges, the far more numerous times it has saved people from serious injury or death.

    The alternative back in the pre-taser days was that a Policeman such as this gentleman, would have beaten the subject with his batton, or subdued him through weight of numbers, both of which carry a far greater risk of serious injury or death through positional asphyxia.

    • TAMIHEREJJ, what a bizarre response. Aside from the fact that you didn’t bother to address the actual point of the article, your own rather dishonest – and laughable – ‘logic’, your argument is void – because you couldn’t present one single example. And to address your (besides the point) point, the fact is, people are still being beaten up by police. People have also died from the taser. I wonder if you’re even aware of that?
      Regardless – you clearly didn’t grasp the actual point of the post. It’s not about Tasers as such, it’s the fact that, like beatings, police are misusing them on a large scale, and though they know they’re misusing them, they think it’s OK. As apparently you do. Because… police don’t have to follow their own rules? If they get pissed off, they have a right to torture people with tasers? They’re using them when they loose their temper. Just like beatings! Surprise surprise.
      I wonder if you actually bothered to read the article, or if you just scanned it for a nit to pick because it was an opinion piece about tasers. And found yourself a really, really silly & self-defeating way to attack.

      I wonder if you also think the PCA are wrong, too. You know – the primary point of discussion in the above piece? That police routinely misuse their equipment to punish and force people to comply, because they’re either angry or too lazy to do their jobs properly?

      People like you would have our cops reduced to what the American police forces have become. They use exactly the arguments you do – including when it comes to killing unarmed people. Dishonest arguments like yours are the epitome of what the term ‘slippery slope’ is for. And a final reminder – your entire response didn’t bother to address the point. You may have, in your own small way, tried to change the subject. But all you did was point out how unwilling to have an honest conversation you are. As are the majority of people who imply that Police ought not be held accountable for abusive behavior.

      • It’s ironic that you claim I haven’t read his article, given that you clearly haven’t.

        The quote about Tasers saving people from injury was from Keith, so no, the onus is not on me to produce an example.

        And really, as Keith himself states Tasers have been here since 2006, and despite the warnings exactly how many people have died and how many times have Police fired them in anger? Yup just this one single example.

        Now stating that Tasers should be withdrawn based on this one single example, while acknowledging that they have saved people (as Keith does) is a ridiculous leap in logic and has no factual or evidential basis.

        Good day.

  9. I’ve just finished working on a filum called Z for Zachariah and Craig Zobel , the director , was interested that I knew a thing or two about Prof Stanley Milgram .

    Know your enemy .


    We are at daily risk of having our minds tinkered with by cunning bastards who know how to do that . You think your mind’s your own ? Think again .

  10. The Police are just acting like their leader – John Key.
    They don’t have to do what they’re told – they can do what they like.

    Seriously, the police must discipline and apologise because that is what they have been told to do. But who will make them????

    Laws unto themselves. I expect they want us to be obedient to the law, as is appropriate – just not them.

    NZPolice, you are setting a very poor standard for citizens of NZ to follow. Are you seriously not going to apply the outcome.
    Blimey soon we will have doctors murdering patients rather than healing them, and criminals convicted of crimes telling the judges and juries, that they don’t have to accept their findings.

    Surely this state of affairs is just a huge joke. Surely!

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