A 95-year-old Australian woman is in critical condition after police electrocuted her with a stun gun when she approached them with a walker and a steak knife in a nursing home.

The stunning arrest of the elderly woman, diagnosed with dementia, has opened a police investigation in the state of New South Galles and sparked a debate about state police's use of stun guns. They are a less lethal option than firearms, but have sometimes proven to be more dangerous than other law enforcement options.

Two police officers went to Yallambee Lodge, a residence whose guests include several dementia patients, after health staff reported that one of the users had picked up a knife in the kitchen.

Deputy Police Commissioner Peter Cotter declined to say whether he thought a police officer with 12 years of experience had used excessive force in firing a stun gun at an elderly woman who stands 1.57 meters tall and weighs 43 kilograms.

"By the time police used the taser, she was approaching. But it's fair to say at a slow pace. He had a walker and a knife. But I can't know what was going on in anyone's mind," Cotter told reporters.

Nicole Lee, chair of advocacy group People with Disability Australia, said she was shocked by the violence. Either she's an agile, fit, fast and intimidating 95-year-old woman, or there's a total lack of judgment from those police officers and they really have to take responsibility," he said on public radio. "I needed someone to handle it with compassion and time, not a taser."

Police said Nowland was seriously injured when she fell and hit her head and not as a direct result of the electric shock. However, a family friend, Andrew Thaler, told the BBC that Nowland was hit twice with the taser, in the chest and back, before falling, suffering a fractured skull and severe brain haemorrhage.

The family is already grieving because they don't expect him to survive, he told the BBC. "They are shocked... and the community is outraged," he added.

Deputy Police Commissioner Cotter confirmed an internal investigation was underway but did not say whether the officer responsible had been suspended. "I understand and share the concerns of the community," he said. Meanwhile, several civil liberties groups demanded Friday that an outside watchdog, such as the Law Enforcement Conduct Commission, administer the investigation, rather than the police themselves.

In 2012, Brazilian student Roberto Curti died in Sydney after receiving 14 electric shocks from police, in an incident in which a court in the country found four officers guilty in 2014 of excessive use of force.

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