Is it ever OK to Taser a 95-year-old?
Recent reports of the Tasering and subsequent death of 95-year-old care home resident Clare Nowland in Australia have raised serious questions about the use of Tasers by police.
Clare Nowland was a 95-year-old care home resident in Australia who had dementia. In the early hours of May 17, she was found by police wandering her care home “armed” with a steak knife. Police later admitted that she “required a walking frame to move” and that “the officer discharged his Taser after she began approaching at a slow pace”.
The police officer responsible has been suspended from duty, on pay, and will face court in July 2023 on charges of recklessly causing grievous bodily harm, assault occasioning actual bodily harm, and common assault. Clare Nowland has now sadly died from the injuries sustained in the Tasering, which included a fractured skull and a serious brain bleed.
There has been immense public outcry in Australia and beyond, following the incident, with most questioning how the use of a Taser on a 95-year-old elderly woman could ever be justifiable.
The UK example
In the UK, the use of Tasers is carefully monitored. They are powerful and dangerous weapons and can cause lifelong injury, or even death.
Police are entitled to use reasonable force for the prevention of crime, or in effecting or assisting in a lawful arrest. The use of a Taser is a use of force.
UK police guidance from the College of Policing states that police officers should only use a Taser as a proportionate response to an identified threat.
Despite this, the UK is no stranger to controversial Taser use. Just this week, a 91-year-old woman in London was threatened with the use of a Taser by the Metropolitan Police. Following a dispute with her carer, the “distressed” woman also had a mesh spit hood placed over her head, and was handcuffed.
Of this incident, Detective Chief Inspector Seb Adjei-Addoh, responded saying, “…officers know that they must be able to justify any use of force or restraint and we will expect that of the officers involved in this incident. They also know that we expect them to show compassion and to adjust their approach in real time according to the circumstances they are faced with.”
Can the use of a Taser be justified in the case of Clare Nowland?
It is difficult to fully determine whether the use of the Taser in this case was lawful, as we do not know all of the facts, and of course, it will be governed by the law in Australia. Nonetheless, questions we could ask if the same thing had happened here might include:
- Was there an identified threat? If so, how grave and immediate was the threat posed?
- What is the minimum level of force that could be used to achieve the lawful objective identified (having regard to the nature and gravity of the threat)?
- Were there any means, short of using force, that could have achieved the lawful objective identified?
- Was the deployment of the Taser (i.e. that use of force) proportionate to the identified threat, or, was it excessive in the circumstances?
These questions should also be read in line with key principles from the College of Policing governing the use of force by police services, the most salient of which include:
- Point 3: “Police officers shall, as far as possible, apply non-violent methods before resorting to any use of force. They should use force only when other methods have proved ineffective, or when it is honestly and reasonably judged that there is no realistic prospect of achieving the lawful objective identified without force.”
- Point 6: “Any decision relating to the use of force which may affect…other vulnerable persons, must take into account the implications of such status including, in particular, the potentially greater impact of force on them.”
While the application of these questions and principles are very context dependent, whether a 95-year-old woman with dementia, resident in a care home, who was “approaching at a slow pace” and “required a walking frame to move”, could be said to constitute an identified threat is clearly questionable.
In addition, even if there was an identified threat, i.e. because Clare Nowland was in possession of a weapon, again, it is questionable as to whether the Taser was a proportionate means of mitigating that threat. As well as there being multiple, presumably much younger officers, as against one elderly lady, there would most likely have been a clear difference in the physical strength of Clare Nowland and that of the officers. As per point 6 of the College of Policing key principles, the use of a Taser would likely have a more adverse impact on someone like Clare Nowland, due to her age and physical condition, as compared with its use in someone much younger. A comparative level of frailty and vulnerability can likely be implied in the case of a 95 year old. Even in a younger person, if they have informed the officers they have a heart condition, the officers must factor this into their decision-making around the use of Taser.
The effect of the Taser use in Clare’s case was fatal.
Role of police
Public bodies such as the police must understand the role they play in enforcing law and order. Whilst people from all sections of society could conceivably pose a real threat to police and/or members of the public, cases like these – of elderly individuals, who are arguably more vulnerable than they are violent and threatening – require a particularly sensitive and measured approach from the police.
At Saunders Law, we offer expert legal assistance with regards to all types of Actions Against the Police claims. If you have been mistreated by the police, whether by use of unnecessary force or otherwise, you should seek legal advice immediately.
Call us on 020 7632 4300 or make an enquiry online.