Australian police Tasered a 95-year-old woman as she approached them with a steak knife and a walker in a nursing home. She is now fighting for her life.
Clare Nowland, who suffers from dementia, was reportedly in critical condition after the incident in the town of Cooma in New South Wales state. A high-level internal police investigation has been launched.
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Two police officers went to Yallambee Lodge, a nursing home that specialises in residents with higher care needs including dementia, after staff reported the great-grandmother had taken a knife from the kitchen.
Paramedics and police had urged Nowland to drop the serrated knife in a conversation lasting “a number of minutes” before she moved towards them, prompting one officer to fire his Taser at her. She then fell backwards and struck her head on the ground, according to police.
Nowland’s case also sparked debate about the New South Wales state police’s use of Taser-brand conducted energy devices, or stun guns. While they are a less lethal option than using guns, they have occasionally proved more dangerous than other policing options.
A “much-loved lady”, Nowland is in critical condition after the confrontation on Wednesday, New South Wales state police Assistant Commissioner Peter Cotter said.
He declined to say whether he thought a police officer with 12 years experience had used excessive force by firing a stun gun at the elderly woman, who stands 1.57 metres (5 foot, 2 inches) tall and weighs 43kg (95 pounds).
“At the time she was Tasered, she was approaching police, but it is fair to say at a slow pace. She had a walking frame. But she had a knife. I can’t take it any further as to what was going through anyone’s mind,” Cotter told reporters.
The officer who fired the Taser was off-duty pending a “level 1 critical incident investigation”, a category police reserve for exceptional cases in which injuries lead to death or imminent death. The homicide squad is involved.
“If a threshold is met where it changes from being a departmental issue to being a criminal issue, we are certainly mature and transparent enough as an organisation to do what has to be done,” Cotter said.
The encounter was recorded on a body camera but it was not in the public interest to release the footage because the investigation was still pending, the commissioner said.
Nicole Lee, president of the advocacy group People with Disability Australia, said she was shocked by the incident.
“She’s either one hell of an agile, fit, fast and intimidating 95-year-old woman, or there’s a very poor lack of judgement on those police officers, and there really needs to be some accountability on their side,” Lee told the Australian Broadcasting Corp.