CANBERRA: Police shocked a 95-year-old woman with a stun gun as she approached them using a walker and carrying a steak knife in an Australian nursing home, sending her to the hospital in critical condition after her head hit the floor.
The extraordinary police takedown of Clare Nowland, who has dementia, on Wednesday prompted a high-level police internal investigation.
It also has sparked debate about how New South Wales state police use stun guns, which are widely known as Tasers after a major manufacturer. They are a less lethal option than firearms but have occasionally proved more dangerous than other policing options.
Police said Nowland received her injuries from striking her head on the floor, rather than directly from the stun gun’s debilitating electric shock.
Two police officers went to Yallambee Lodge, a nursing home in the town of Cooma that specializes in residents with higher care needs including dementia, after staff reported that Nowland had taken a serrated steak knife from the kitchen.
Police Assistant Commissioner Peter Cotter declined to say whether he thought a police officer with 12 years’ experience used excessive force by firing a stun gun at Nowland, who is 1.57 meters (5 feet, 2 inches) tall and weighs 43 kilograms (95 pounds).
Cotter said police engaged in “negotiations” with Nowland for several minutes and used the stun gun when she approached the doorway where the officers were standing.
“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.
Nicole Lee, president of the advocacy group People with Disability Australia, said she was shocked by the police response.
“She’s either one hell of an agile, fit, fast and intimidating 95-year-old woman, or there’s a very poor lack of judgment on those police officers and there really needs to be some accountability on their side,” Lee said.
Family spokesperson Andrew Thaler said Nowland’s dementia “waxes and wanes.”
“The question will be, how was it appropriate to use this level of force on a 95-year-old woman?” Thaler was quoted as saying by The Sydney Morning Herald.
Cotter described video from the two police officers’ body cameras of the incident as “confronting footage.” But he said the video was part of an internal police investigation and it would “not be in the public interest to be releasing that.”
Cotter said the police officer who fired the stun gun was currently “not in the workplace,” but it was unclear whether the officer was suspended.
Nowland, a great-grandmother, made headlines in 2008 when she went skydiving to celebrate her 80th birthday.