How Roberto Conti’s Death After 14 Taser Attacks Changed Everything

Tasers became the standard for general duty police officers a little over a decade ago as an alternative to deadly force and as a way to reduce the risk of injury to officers and the public. Using them requires a three-step process. First, the officer says, “Taser, taser, taser”; then draw it; and if the first two moves failed to deter the perpetrator, they fire.

Screenshots from Roberto Curti’s Vision of Tasering in 2012.

The weapon fires spiked darts attached to insulated wires that penetrate the skin and emit up to 50,000 volts in short pulses. When it works — and sometimes it doesn’t — it leads to “neuromuscular disability,” where the person loses control of their body and falls to the ground until the current stops. It “causes significant pain,” according to a report by an NSW Ombudsman of its use, while anxiety and stress can trigger adrenaline, which puts the heart at risk.

“It’s well-established that people who are infirm, elderly, short in stature, or people with potential heart disease should not be tasered.” So, for the life of me, I can’t understand how officials came to the conclusion that the taser was the best solution .”

Criminologist Emma Ryan from Deakin University

Four more people have died in Taser incidents in New South Wales since Curti’s death. They include Stephen Kline, who died in 2016 after a taser ignited a flammable liquid, resulting in an explosion and burns to his leg, and Jack Kokaua, a mentally ill patient who was tasered three times despite a heart condition.

Roberto Curti on CCTV the night he died.

Roberto Curti on CCTV the night he died.

Details of how often and under what circumstances Tasers are used are classified. On Friday, a NSW Police spokeswoman declined a request for the latest figures. The latest data, collected under freedom of information laws, is five years old and shows that officers pulled their tasers nearly 3,000 times in the five years to 2018, and more than 1,000 of those times a mental health issue was recorded.

Roberto Curti's final moments were spent writhing in pain as multiple probes shocked his body with up to 50,000 volts.

Roberto Curti’s final moments were spent writhing in pain as multiple probes shocked his body with up to 50,000 volts.

Internal police reports show that they are mainly used in residential homes for incidents related to mental illness, alcohol and domestic violence. Tasers are equipped with a camera and the footage of each use is reviewed by a senior police officer. Wednesday’s incident was filmed. “It’s confrontational footage,” Deputy Commissioner Peter Cotter said. “It forms an essential and integral part of the investigation and it is not in the public interest to make it public.” One critical incident was reported.

The retired and serving police said the investigation should examine broader issues, such as a lack of experience compared to the past (the officer who used the gun on Nowland had been with the police for 12 years). “It’s either inexperience or [bad judgment] But not the Taser’s fault, it’s the operator’s fault,” said one. “Tasers are a necessary tool for police work today.” Another said: “Some of them just stuff everything. When it comes to experience, you get things like that.”

Michael Kennedy, a former police officer and now an academic at the University of New England, also raised concerns about the level of experience. “Young cops are rudderless, and when they’re rudderless, here’s what happens,” he said. “No one wakes up in the morning and thinks, ‘I know what I’m going to do today; “I’m going to taser a 95-year-old woman in a home with dementia.” Those are things that happen for a whole bunch of reasons.”

George Newhouse of the National Justice Project said the incident was tragic for everyone involved and stressed the need to ensure police are not the first responders to mental health crises. “They’re the ones who get called at 4 a.m., but their responses aren’t tuned for de-escalation,” he said. However, he questioned the need for a taser in a nursing home, citing a 2020 case in which two civilians arrested a killer using street furniture.


“If two untrained citizens can subdue a male murderer with a milk crate and a chair, why can’t the police contain or de-escalate a situation involving a 95-year-old great-grandmother using a walking frame?” he said.

Dementia Australia released a statement saying the company was shocked by the incident and had been contacted by people with dementia and their families and carers “to express their anger and sadness at Ms Nowland,” it said. NSW Police received almost 500 calls for assault at aged care facilities last year, but Sarah Russell, aged care expert at Research Matters, said her team was not aware of any other case where police used force.

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Justin Scaccy

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