September 28, 2013
Reporter at The Canberra Times.
Police across the country could be prevented from using pepper spray to defend themselves as a result of a legal case against a Canberra Australian Federal Police officer.
Sergeant Brett Coutts has taken his case to the Federal Court to clear his name after the AFP sacked him earlier this year for alleged use of excessive force.
His union is so concerned about the case it has funded his court battle, concerned his firing could set a nasty precedent affecting 56,000 police nationally.
In court documents police say at 1.41am on May 26 last year the officer used capsicum spray on a man from a distance of 30 centimetres before holding him in a headlock and putting him in the back of a caged police vehicle.
The Australian Federal Police Association’s national president, Jon Hunt-Sharman, said his organisation was financially backing the court case because of its wide-ranging implications.
‘‘A dangerous precedent will be set if a highly experienced frontline operational cop can be sacked for using a non-lethal and safe tool issued to him, when he had a genuine belief that the offender posed a serious threat to members of the public and himself,’’ Mr Hunt-Sharman said.
‘‘The outcome of the Federal Court matter will have a flow on effect to 56,000 police officers throughout Australia.’’
The incident happened outside The Cabinet nightclub in Manuka, and a colleague within the police force complained about the officer’s conduct a fortnight later.
The officer was immediately suspended with pay while the incident was investigated by the AFP’s professional standards unit.
The investigation finally concluded the officer had used excessive force and he was sacked in June this year.
In his defence filed in the Federal Court by his legal team, Sergeant Coutts argued the decision making process was biased, although the AFP rejected the claim natural justice had been denied.
ACT Policing did not comment because the matter was in court. According to the police association, Sergeant Coutts is now suspended with pay while the legal case is underway.
Publicly available AFP documents say the primary and preferred means of conflict de-escalation is negotiation and members should consider other use of force options before discharging oleoresin capsicum (OC) spray.
The federal police force is contracted to provide policing in the ACT.
Fairfax Media revealed last week Victoria Police would phase out capsicum spray and replace it with a non-flammable product.