Accounting for the lethal force

Brian Walters, 8 April 2005

Victoria has a problem with police shootings and a system of control and inquiry that is patently inadequate.

Police have to deal with some dangerous people, and violence sometimes is unavoidable. But when an agency of the Government takes the life of a citizen, the fabric of our community frays.

On Monday an officer of the special operations group ("SOG") shot dead Mohamed Chaouk while conducting an armed raid on his home.

It is the second time this year a man has died at the hands of police. On the evening of Friday, February 18, the SOG intercepted a car in Bank Street, South Melbourne, and fired several bullets into it, shooting Wayne Joannou dead.

This follows three fatal shootings by police last year. Once again, Victoria has a major problem with police shootings, outstripping the rest of Australia put together. Does this mean that Victorian citizens are more dangerous and violent than those in other states? Far from it. In fact, studies have persistently shown that it is the behaviour and attitude of police that largely determine the level of police shootings.

The Police Association has expressed its public support for the officers involved in the latest shooting - even before any investigation - and has expressed annoyance that there is to be an investigation by the Police Integrity Commission. This insensitive response confirms community disquiet. Police are already involved in investigating the most recent death, yet through their association they have already publicly committed themselves to a position. This undermines confidence in the impartiality of their investigation.

The Police Integrity Commission has announced it will investigate police shootings over the past two years. While this is welcome, serious doubts remain about the structure and functioning of this commission, which was established last year. The Director of Police Integrity is also the Victorian Ombudsman, George Brouwer. Although he is diligent and efficient, he has a significant task, as ombudsman, in dealing with bureaucratic blockages for members of the public. The discharge of that function is more than enough for one administrator, without the added and significant burdens of conducting complex investigations into serious allegations against police.

Moreover, the Office of Police Integrity has very limited investigative powers, particularly in relation to requiring answers to questions. Where conduct of police has led to the death of a citizen, such answers ought be required. Just last month The Age reported ("New doubts on police corruption watchdog", 2/3) that a senior investigator with the Office of Police Integrity doubted the office's ability to carry out its role. He was reported as saying that the decision to set up the Office of Police Integrity was an attempt to "have something that looked more like a crime commission". There have also been serious complaints of delay in the investigations of the Office of Police Integrity, as well as lack of public release of its findings, where this is in the public interest.

The coroner is independent, and deaths caused by police should come before him. But the coroner necessarily relies on others to gather statements and evidence. Traditionally it is the police that do this, but where the conduct and culture of the police are in question, that is no longer appropriate.

As in other Australian states, Victoria needs a properly resourced standing body, independent of the police force, and with adequate powers, responsible for investigation of police conduct, including allegations of corruption and police violence.

More than 10 years ago the coroner held an inquiry into a series of police shootings. This in turn prompted Project Beacon, which led to the retraining of thousands of police. The results were encouraging, with a sharp drop in the number of people killed by police. Why has the problem escalated again?

Both this year's killings were at the hands of the SOG - a paramilitary unit within the Victoria Police, originally designed for anti-terrorism duties. SOG is modelled on a military commando unit, and its members train with the SAS and some are former members of the armed forces. They dress in intimidating black uniforms designed to create an imposing appearance. They are trained, armed - and sometimes hyped up - to use extreme force. Police themselves complain that the SOG take a military rather than a civilian approach to operations.

The role, if any, for a group such as the SOG within the Victoria Police should be very limited. Task Force Victor, the only publicly released internal review of Victoria Police firearms tactics, recommended that reliance on SOG be reduced by setting up armed response groups capable of undertaking "all but the most demanding operations".

Instead, the role of SOG has been expanded, including use where "there is a prior history of significant violence including prior history of mental disorder manifesting as violent behaviour" (Police Gazette, 1996). This would cover many psychiatric patients. SOG's role has even been extended to prevention of suicide and self-harm. A large proportion of the police killings in recent years are attributable to this small squad.

Another feature of recent police killings has been shooting of mentally disturbed people. Last year police in Brunswick shot a man dead who was wielding a sword. He had been attacking lamp posts with it, and then hit the police car.

Some years ago, we had a system of Crisis Support Units, in which police teamed with a mental health professional to talk such people down and contain them. This system, which was effective, has been disbanded. Instead, we have Crisis Assessment and Treatment (CAT) teams - or, as they are known among mental health professionals "Can't Attend Today" teams. These are multi-disciplinary groups who have demonstrated repeated failure to attend crises in a timely fashion, and who, if there really is a crisis, simply refer the matter to the police. In some cases, deaths have followed. A return to the Crisis Support Unit model is overdue.

There are several well-recognised principles for avoiding police shootings, including careful planning of operations, avoiding confrontation, adopting "cordon and containment", and a recognition that the need to obtain evidence and apprehend suspects should be balanced against the safety of the public, police and suspects.

Some aspects of police firearms culture are both persistent and troubling. Routine wearing of firearms in public places is out of step with practice in other countries, and increases the tension of any confrontation with police. Ordinary members of the public find the presence of such firearms disturbing, for good reason.

The turnaround in police shootings a decade ago was brought about by emphasis on conflict resolution and verbal negotiation, rather than confrontation. Policing is primarily about dealing with people. Firearms avoid that. They impose the will of the person with the firearm, and leave no room for negotiation.

Brian Walters, SC, is president of Liberty Victoria.