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Demented Policing: Tasering the Elderly

Australia is a country addictively hostile to the elderly. Despite being a continent that speaks to immemorial origins, respect for those who age is uncommon. In The Lucky Country, that seminal, repeatedly misunderstood text, written in frustrated, sour prose, Donald Horne observes that Australia is not a place where one should grow old.

And so, it follows: the rampant, habitual abuse of the elderly, seen as the gnats and brats of family and human refuse, the lack of community protections, the human rights abuses, all exposed vividly by the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety.

No Royal Commission could possibly deal with all the social and structural issues that afflict the treatment of the elderly. A central feature of the nuclear family remains its obsessive selfishness: the savaging of the older member is seen as not only natural but logical. Those no longer functioning in mind, bowel and being, are rushed off to the retirement village or nursing home once the age meter ticks over. Family members are assured that their discarded elders will be happy in their new prison, and the conspiracy between what is loosely called the “aged care sector”, one racked by the most insidious of abuses, and the medical profession, is complete. All there is to do is wait out the time for the inevitable passing, and hopefully the old bats will have some spare cash left behind after the nursing home steals the bulk of the estate.

Before passing, the elderly individual will face the risks created by their environment, helped along by unhelpful carers, rapacious providers, and money-counting administrators. To this can now be added another risk: the prospect of being tasered by the police.

The last line deserves a place in a species of ageist dystopian literature with a social Darwinian slant, a sort of Mad Max for the Aged. But it is precisely what took place on May 17. 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. Comprising two barbed darts shot in Probe Mode, the recipient faces the release of 50,000 volts of electrical current lasting over 5 seconds. When used in its Drive-Stun Mode, the weapon is placed directly against the victim’s skin, causing terrific pain, sometimes burns. The casualty list attributed to the Taser is a growingly ghoulish one. In February 2012, Amnesty International reported that the US death toll attributable to the weapon since 2001 had risen to 500.

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

Peter Cotter, NSW Police Force Assistant Commissioner, tried to justify the actions of the officer in question. “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 dementia-suffering terror was also using a walking frame, bound to strike fear in any law enforcement figure. “But she had a knife,” insisted 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. 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 – as if Nowland’s state warranted a lengthy conference 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. Hit her head. Lost 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.

The result of this incident means that Nowland, despite her critical state, is 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 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 body 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.

While the US National Rifle Association has little logical to say about gun violence, namely in insisting that more guns, not fewer, is the answer, one repurposed bit of advice may be useful. Give the elderly, doomed to their carceral fate in nursing homes, Tasers.


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  1. Chris Barrett

    What the police increasingly fail to understand is that citizens give police permission to use coercive force in certain circumstances. But in return we expect police to be accountable for their exercise of that power. Increasingly this is not done – we have a police commissioner refusing to look at the body tape of the incident let alone release it. As the police accountability projects makes very clear: “Australia’s mechanisms to investigate police do not meet international human rights standards. Substandard complaint investigations disguise the serious and widespread problem of police misconduct and leave police immune from sanction.”. Rather we see an increasing propensity to gain compliance through force and an increasing militarization approach to controlling situations.,

  2. Clakka

    Without doubt, the weasel words of the police Deputy Commissioner and Commissioner are a preamble to a cover up. This lack of transparency and accountability represents an utter lack of discipline, starting form the top and seeping all the way down through the ranks and administration.

    Across the country, their BS has to be attended to via legislation and regulation, independently.

    Otherwise, community confidence in the police will continue to erode, and also their lack of ability to recruit will be further stymied.

  3. Fred

    It’s way past high time to have an independent body carry out investigations of police “incidents”. Police investigating police is not arms length and easily corruptible. One has to wonder about the quantity and quality of training that police receive, particularly in the area of “negotiation, containment, retreat and de-escalation” as it appears this skipped in preference for taser training.

  4. Terence Mills

    Surely it is not beyond our capability as a human species to be able to develop a means of restraining fellow citizens who are emotionally disturbed and potentially a danger to themselves and others.

    In the US they shoot the crap out of citizens (mainly black) and in Australia we attack senior citizens on walking frames and we take guns into Aboriginal communities.

    With wildlife we use a sedative dart to immobilize lions, tigers and elephants to avoid permanent harm.

    We need a rethink, guys.

  5. New England Cocky

    Once again we see the Police hierarchy covering their personal backsides for the deficiencies in training and corporate culture that Australian voters SHOULD NOT have to tolerate.

    Two likely overweight boofhead coppers at about 4:00AM cannot restrain a tiny 95 year old woman ”chasing” them with her walking frame around an aged care home? That is a script out of the Keystone Kops!!

    Sadly, this is just another example of the bullying corporate ethos that occurs too frequently in all Australian Police Forces!!


  6. Matilda

    Now would be a good time to start hiring police recruits who can think on their feet. In the interim, arm police with large blankets to throw over advancing threats. Remove cutlery from canteens, especially the all too common butter knife. Alternatively, add tasers to the list of things that are safe and effective in the public health arena. Mandates and legislation may be required to cover all bases; and rsezz.

  7. Kerri

    95 years old,
    walking frame,
    nursing home,
    Great grandmother,
    steak knife.
    7 items on this list but only one that appeared to matter to police?
    Every police officer should experience the Taser personally as part of their training. It is important to know what the device does to the person it is used on rather than just knowing what the device does.

  8. Canguro

    Nominally sane & rational individuals, as a general rule, avoid pursuit of occupations that likely bring them into conflict with their fellow humans; viz. policing, gaolers, military service et al. In contrast, those that do join those professions will have already accepted that in the normal course of their duties they will encounter others against whom they are going to have to actualise some type of response involving force; whether killing them, or incapacitating them via the use of an array of choices – guns, chemical sprays, batons, water cannons, aural assault weapons, physical attack, tasers, and so on… the means available for humans to attack and assault and immobilise other humans is broad and impressive – and it’s not overreach to suggest that the prospect of these kind of duties has already been considered when the individuals who willingly join these service organisations are at the outset of their careers.

    A bit like the contrasting types in the animal kingdom, herbivores, omnivores & carnivores. Predators & prey. It’s almost a banal observation to note that the felines and canines along with a number of oceanic animals such as sharks and orcas exist on the basis of killing whatever prey they can manage to. Herd animals, deer, sheep, cattle etc, by contrast, don’t kill others except in those flight or fight moments of existential danger.

    I don’t think it’s inappropriate to lump the professions mentioned into an analagous frame with the predators of the animal kingdom. Notwithstanding the (again, banal) observation that they’re members of the human race and subject to the general rules of behaviour that condition most of us in our social relations, they’re also granted certain exceptional freedoms by virtue of the nature of the roles in society and the expected nature of their encounters with their fellow citizens.

    Thus it is that we find, for example, that a soldier in uniform and engaged in a war zone where hostility against an ‘enemy’ is the order of the day, that that soldier can freely kill as many as the ‘other’ as he likes, and remarkably, the more he kills the more he is considered to be doing a good job and can expect to be rewarded as such for his expertise as an extinguisher of human life.

    In a similar fashion, police forces around the world in increasingly take it as a given that their proper function in society is to shut down any hint of infraction, dissent, argument, rant or protest against what the protagonists see as ‘out of whack’ with the way things ought to be. The recent case of the almost 80 year old well-known serial protestor Danny Lim being crash-tackled and assaulted by a pair of young policement in Sydney’s QVB building is a case in point. As was the assault against Rachel Grahame at an aged care home in Sydney in October 2020, when this 81 year old woman suffering from dementia was assaulted by six police and double handcuffed. As was the assault against the Brazilian man Beto Laudisio in 2012, tasered multiple times and subjected to three cans of OC spray to his face, leading to his death after being pursued like a fleeing animal by a pack of police through the streets of Sydney.

    And now Clare Nowland, a 95 year old woman weighing 45 kg, tasered and now lying in a critical condition in Cooma Hospital with a fractured skull and bleeding on the brain after shuffling around in demented confusion in her nursing home, supporting herself with a walking frame and in possession of… a steak knife. Mr. Policeman, I suppose, if Tasers weren’t available, might just have well have well pulled out his Glock and shot the poor woman. It’s happened before, with regularity, that the NSW police have shot & killed persons with mental illness.

    The hunters & the hunted. Be careful, folks, it’s a dangerous world out there.

  9. Harry Lime

    The psychological profiling of would be recruits to police forces is in obvious need of urgent repair…not to mention dubious training and attitudinal inculcations.In other words, don’t have nutters training nutters.Starting at the top.We have a prime example in our glorious leader of the opposition,who still has these ingrained attitudes from his walloper days.

  10. leefe


    The one problem with your analogy is that other animalian predators kill almost exclusively for essential reasons: food, safety and reproduction. Humans do so sometimes just because they can; they do it with minimal threat or none at all; some even do it purely for pleasure. They do it en masse in ways that very few species can or would.

    I’ll take the sharks any day.

  11. Kerri

    @Harry Lime
    In the US, cops in training, are told to not be afraid of shooting someone instead of being told to not be afraid of being shot!

  12. Andyfiftysix

    The issue is not as it seems. Police are constantly interfacing with the underbelly of society. They become BRUTALISED. Tasering an old lady is always going to happen when you treat every event as something that has to be cleared up asap. We have seen numerous times that police take drastic action because it’s time to ” clear the mess”. The last one was Santa being kneed in the kidneys whilst laying on the ground.
    The American ” desease” where every scene is potentially a fatal attack on police runs through the system.

    I would have delt with a serrated knife by asking if she as looking for a loaf of bread to cut. Anything to diffuse the situation rather than the tactics of restraint and containment.

    We need more police officers and then we also need to realise we need to let go of more of them. A fair number of them will get brutalised, it goes with the job. I don’t know how you go about unbrutalisng them. But it’s some thing that has to be acknowledged.

  13. Terence Mills

    It was suggested by a trained registered nurse that a pillow appropriately placed would have easily disarmed this lady : please issue pillows to all serving police officers.

  14. New England Cocky

    SMH 230523 update:
    1) Commissioner Webb is attempting to cover her professional backside:
    2) The assailant is a Senior Constable with 12 years experience:
    BOTH these unprofessional coppers should now explain why they should not be kicked out of the NSW Police Force for unprofessional conduct.

  15. leefe

    The Commissioner’s “I don’t need to see the footage” line is emblamatic of a culture that has to be changed.

    Yes, you do need to see it. You need to know exactly what happened. That’s part of your fucking job!

  16. Kangaroo Jack

    I have had several thoughts including the one expressed about the commissioner viewing the video since she empowers these societal misfits, as can reasonably be applied to a lot of police after their 12 weeks training to become our overseers.

    On what planet are the staff of a nursing home who apparently, whilst dreadfully underpaid, not taught how to manage those in their first level care? How is it even considered calling the police to be an option? At what point do they also bear
    responsibility for the call that directly let to this woman’s death. Direct responsibility.

    Was it because the staff member who called was an essentially untrained Asian woman who has never even learnt proper English in the workplace?

    Was it a nurse who had to clean up after another regular mess was created that had to be then cleaned up? Someone who had the shits about the customer (as opposed to patient) having to be cleaned up and redressed? This was 4am remember.

    Was it the overnight facility manager who had no skin in the game at all?

    Twelve weeks on the job and he thought that it was okay to use a weapon, instead of walking up to her and putting an arm round her and helping her back to her room, talking quietly to her, as the guilty staff member should have done, and who just looked on as this happened?

    We don’t ask enough questions, and those were do, are the wrong questions.

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