Monday night’s Four Corners looks at the contentious issue of police force in dealing with potentially violent situations involving the mentally ill.
It will look at the use of weapons, taser guns and police shootings.
Elijah Holcombe was a young man diagnosed with episodes of paranoia. He was especially fearful of the police. He had been treated at a hospital in the central west of New South Wales. When he took off in the family car. his parents notified the local police to warn them he was ill and scared of police. The next day Elijah Holcombe was shot dead by a police officer. According to people on the scene, he had been chased by a plain clothes officer and during the chase had picked up a bread-knife. Moments later he was shot and fatally wounded by the policeman.
“He was treated like a criminal and he was ill and he went for help and this is how he was treated. He was shot in the street.” – Tracey Holcombe, Elijah’s mother
Police in New South Wales aren’t the only ones coming under intense scrutiny. In Victoria, 49 people have been shot dead by police in the past two decades. This figure is higher than any other state.
In December last year, 15-year-old Tyler Cassidy turned up at his home, his hands bloodied and his shirt torn. Despite protests from his mother he fled from the house. His mother rang the police to warn them her son was deeply upset and asked them to look out for him and bring him home.
At 9.00pm he was sighted at a local shopping centre in Northcote, a suburb of Melbourne. At 9.35pm, four police arrived and found him holding two knives. He was chased. Five minutes later he was dead, shot five times.
Immediately after the shooting Victorian Police said the officers had no choice. Others, including Tyler’s mother, disagree:
“They (the police) need to take responsibility for their actions. They made a choice.”
Michael Strong, Director of the Office of Police Integrity in Victoria, has an even more alarming assessment. When asked if police have the necessary training and the skills to de-escalate potentially violent situations involving the mentally ill, he said:
“Not to a sufficient degree at the present time. There’s no doubt about that.”
In response to these incidents there are now renewed calls for police to introduce more tasers or stun guns to help them defuse these kinds of situations. But will this solve the problem?
Reporter Quentin McDermott investigated the death of Townsville man, Tony Galeano. Like others in the Four Corner’s story, Tony experienced a mental crisis. During the crisis he began smashing up a friend’s home. Police were called and tasered him. He died at the scene, but only after suffering terrible pain, according to a person on the scene.
“The only things we heard really was screaming you know ahhh. He was in pain… You wouldn’t do that to a dog.”
A recent study by Amnesty International shows that more than 330 people in the United States have died since 2001 after being struck by police tasers. In more than 40 cases, coroners listed the taser as the cause or contributory factor. As one expert put it, the debate about tasars is off the mark:
”My problem is that right now the the argument seems to be framed entirely on the issue of equipment, rather than on the more important issue of training. We’ve seen globally that police can still be very effective … without such an array of weapons.”
Clearly, police need training to help them defuse acute situations with the mentally ill. If this doesn’t happen, experience shows the death toll will continue to rise.
The episode ‘Lethal Force’ goes to air on Monday 26th October at 8.30pm on ABC1. It is repeated on Tuesday 27th October at 11.35pm.