Police officers are facing unprecedented public scrutiny after an investigation by the police watchdog into an incident where officers tasered, capsicum-sprayed and struck with a baton a 16-year-old boy in Byron Bay.
The newly formed NSW Law Enforcement Conduct Commission (LECC) convened its first public hearing on Monday. It will examine the conduct of several police officers who arrested and took into custody the teen – known as "AO" in the proceedings – near the Nomad backpacker hostel in the popular Australian coastal town.
Footage tendered at the hearing, part of which had been previously circulated on social media and by news organisations, showed police officers pinning the boy to the ground in an alleyway in the early hours of the morning.
Counsel assisting the inquiry Terence Rowles told the hearing AO had taken acid.
Footage tendered at a hearing held by the Law Enforcement Conduct Commission.
The footage depicts the boy screaming “help, please help" and four officers pinning the boy to the ground. The boy is already on the ground at the commencement of the footage, and shouts out in apparent distress on several occasions.
One officer tells AO to “settle down”, but AO continues screaming that the officer is on his back.
The footage then shows an officer striking him a number of times with what appears to be a baton.
Officers shout on several occasions to AO to “stop resisting”, as a police van approaches next to the officers.
“Get in the truck,” one of the officers said. “Do you understand? Stop resisting.”
The footage begins after the officers had already pinned the boy to the ground, and does not capture the use of the taser or the OC spray.
Rowles told the hearing in his opening statement that the commission had not yet formed a view on whether the police officers had engaged in any misconduct.
The hearing had been convened because “the information available indicated the interaction could amount to serious misconduct or possibly a crime which was appropriate for the commission to investigate.
“Although it is certainly the case that AO was acting irrationally and was plainly intoxicated in some way, he had not attempted to attack anyone, either physically or verbally. He was plainly unarmed. He was shouting but, to the extent that anything could be made out, he was not either swearing or threatening.”
He said that the officers were placed in a “difficult and unpleasant situation” that warranted intervention by police, but that the inquiry was focused on how they went about that intervention.
“Considerable physical force was used to subdue AO, including the use of OC spray, a taser strike and baton strikes,” he said. “Most of these blows appear to have been inflicted on AO at a time when he was under restraint by the police officers.”
The identities of the four officers involved in arresting AO will be subject to a non-publication order for the duration of hearing. Depending on the outcome of the hearing that order may later be varied. A fifth officer, who was involved with AO when he was later taken into custody, will also be examined.
Several witnesses who observed all or part of the arrest will also be called to give evidence. Rowles told the hearing AO would not be called “for reasons that include medical evidence which has been made available to the commission".
The commission heard from one witness who was a guest at an apartment across the road from the incident. He observed AO acting irrationally and appearing to be agitated for about 15 to 20 minutes before police arrived.
When officers arrived at the scene one police officer told him to calm down, according to the witness. AO continued to pace, holding his hands to his head, and did not appear to be responsive to police.
“I then saw AO get sprayed,” the witness told the hearing. “There was a lot of coughing, he couldn’t see and he was screaming words to the effect of ‘I need some water’.
“His hands went to his eyes. He appeared to be coughing and also screaming … he said, 'What are you doing, just get me some water'.”
The witness said that AO still appeared to be agitated, and that one officer struck AO's knees with a baton, causing him to fall to the ground. When he continued to get up, one of the officers then pulled out a taser and shot him after warning him several times, the witness said.
“I remember hearing it go off, there was a [taser] line and then AO falling to the ground and he appeared to be quiet for about 10 to 15 seconds.”
The officers then surrounded AO, according to the witness. He was pinned to the ground and struck several times with a baton.
The officers have not yet been examined in the hearing, which will continue for several days.
The hearing is the first to be convened by the newly formed commission, which was created to investigate allegations of police misconduct across NSW.
The commission's first update to the NSW parliament in March raised significant concerns over the commission's resourcing.