Who wants Protective Service Officers?

A lot of Victorians who think about policing are worried right now. I’m one.

I have before me the Age of 24 November 2011:

Police training review urged

Tyler Cassidy’s death

a clarion call: Coroner

 

The youngest victim of a police shooting in Australia, the 15 year-old was low in spirits, affected by alcohol, talking wild – suicidal, homicidal, aggressive, self- destructive wild, and brandishing knives. He menaced in particular one police officer of the four who answered the calls to the scene, a shopping centre and parkland on a Thursday evening in December 2008. Within 73 seconds of the arrival of police, Tyler was shot five times, three shots fired into his legs in contravention of police policy that envisages shoot-or-die situations and directs aim to the greatest body mass, the chest area. The leg shots and CS foam did not much slow Tyler’s advance. Tyler had more or less cornered a cop on a stairway when the fatal bullet hit him.

On the stand in 2010, that cop called the mess ‘a tragedy that Tyler didn’t have the tools, if you will, to be able to cope with the situation he found himself in… One day my [daughters] will ask me if I’ve ever used a gun and I don’t know how I’m going to answer.’ Why coronial investigations into deaths by police shootings take so long – this one nearly took three years from death to concluding findings – mystifies me, but the ones in the 1990s took longer. Three years is a long time to sweat on what the world thinks, and though the killing will haunt the private lives of the four exonerated officers until the day they die, inquest findings do clear the deck of life a bit.

In the 1980s, Victoria police officers directly involved in shooting homicides seldom gave evidence at the inquests into the deaths of those they shot. In an atmosphere of litigiousness, they had a right to silence on the one ground available, that of the risk of self-incrimination. All the officers involved who were well enough gave evidence at Tyler Cassidy’s inquest.

Pointlessly, the techno nuts among armchair policing experts see the incident as a case for the ‘Taser. Some early media reports identified Cassidy as white supremacist gang member (some skinheads on-line claimed him as a member). The coroner wanted better police training generally, and perhaps specialist police for out-of-control people. The coroner’s idea of crisis experts got an elephant stamp from Legal Aid, and mental-health experts, who argue for more police and community awareness of mental health crises. The police union secretary made the point that police have not got the years of time to train as mental health experts. A broadcaster wanted to give the cornered officer ‘a bravery medal’.

If only there had been more time… There was a hardware store nearby; the distraught lad had got knives from there; and four long brooms might have saved all this blood, had there been time. The far more formidable Katherine Knight of Aberdeen, the so-called ‘Australian Hannibal’, was once disarmed while going off with a knife with a hostage in a service station by NSW cops with brooms. But there was no time. Skinhead Cassidy was proven to be a myth – Tyler’s moves and motives were solo, not ‘gang’. It is difficult to see how a state-coverage of specialist police would work. The experimental Police Ambulance Crisis Assessment Early Response unit hangs by funding thread, though police, hospital and mental health workers in the Southern Region have had nothing but praise for PACER whereby police and clinicians pair up to answer calls and get the disturbed and critical into a hospital fast.1  but greater awareness for police and everybody else may help. From the sound of the officer’s ‘compassionate, decent, brave’ words in court, a medal would be the last thing he wanted.

The history of Victorian Police shooting favors the coroner’s general training recommendations. One should beware of generalizing from small-number statistics. But there’s no going forward without looking back, and it worked in the mid-1990s:

Fatal woundings by Victoria Police 1984-942

1984:

1

Mad Max Marinoff shoots up police

1985:

2

= Mad Max Marinoff

1986:

2

Russell Street police building bombed

1987:

3

Hoddle and Queen Street massacres

1988:

6

Walsh Street killings of two police

1989:

1

= Gary Abdallah - controversy & community action peaks

1990:

3

hollow-point, fully jacket Vicpol ammo introduced

1991:

1

 

1992:

3

 

1994:

8

Operation Beacon firearm & other re-training introduced

1995

none

 

The Baillieu Liberal government, swept into power on a raft of law-and-order promises, is methodically putting their unthought-out platform into rasher practice. It is as if the hideous experience of those years magically evaporated.

Despite the hard-won knowledge that police training lay at the core of the situation that saw an officer shoot some poor bugger dead (on average) every six weeks in 1994, this government is recruiting Protective Service Officers, ostensibly to make all railway stations safe at night. In other words, rail stations, over 90 per cent of which are not known to be unsafe in any way, are going to have fully armed, half-trained half-police on half-a-cop’s-pay on every stop. Re-assuring video of the recruits during their 33-week course has been aired. This show PSOs can definitely walk backwards (can ‘retreat’) while training a handgun on some imagined assailant. However, this practice is on a daytime sports field in a 3-second visual grab, and leaves us wondering what the drill is when these guys run out of platform one night surrounded by angry, or drunk, or emotionally charged-up people.

I don’t imagine there is anything in the budget for the legal bills arising from just one shooting death by a PSO. Lawyers with a client family who’ve lost a member by government-issue bullet fired by a public servant will soon make training real police look cheap.

The Baillieu government has: repealed home detention, increased sentences, made more sentences mandatory, and talked tough on crime… and yet they wonder why arrest and incarceration rates have risen, and why they need to build and man another prison.  (Forget the claim that the Labor Party hid plans for a new prison from them. Even if it’s true, Blind Freddy solo could have worked out the need for a new one.)

The state has learned the hard way that even properly trained, highly-disciplined cops, even after the successful reforms ushered in in 1995, still shoot too many people. Welcome to amateur hour at a rail station near you. Just be careful.

1    Moorabbin Leader 30 June 2010, Adrian Ballantyne
2     Task Force Victor figures