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Shoot to kill: the use of lethal force by police in Australia

How prevalent is the use of lethal force by police in Australia, and is a disturbing trend developing in Queensland? AAP/Dave Hunt

Over the weekend, Queensland police shot and killed a 51-year-old man who was allegedly armed with a knife. On Monday night, another man was shot and killed on the Gold Coast. It was the sixth Queensland police shooting in 2014 and the fourth fatal shooting in a matter of months.

These incidents have again placed the use of lethal force by police in the spotlight. How prevalent is the use of lethal force by police in Australia? Is a disturbing trend developing in Queensland? Can we learn lessons from overseas that will avoid situations that result in deaths?

Queensland police are not the first in Australia to come under scrutiny for their use of firearms and lethal force. In the 1980s and early 1990s, Victorian police were heavily criticised for the number of fatal shootings they engaged in. The recent ABC documentary Trigger Point focuses on the period in Victoria in which police killed 30 people and two police officers were executed in retaliation.

From 1990 to 2004, Victorian police accounted for 38% of fatal police shootings in Australia, followed by New South Wales (24%). Queensland accounted for 14% of the deaths.

2014 police shootings in Queensland. Terry Goldsworthy

Police shootings in Australia

In 2013, the Australian Institute of Criminology released a report detailing fatal police shootings between 1989 and 2011. In that period, police fatally shot 105 people. The victims were almost entirely male and 60% were between 20 and 39 years of age.

Of those persons shot by police, 42% were suffering a mental illness at the time of the shooting. Schizophrenia was the most common illness (59% of those with a mental illness) suffered. In at least one of the recent Queensland shootings, the person shot was allegedly a sufferer of mental illness.

Australian police shootings between 2008 and 2011. Terry Goldsworthy; Australian Institute of Criminology

Interestingly, only one of the 105 fatal shootings identified in the study was classified as unlawful homicide. The issue remains that a fatal shooting may well be classified as a justified homicide, but that finding does not mean that it was not an avoidable homicide.

It cannot be ignored that police do from time to time face threats to their lives. This is supported by a study into police deaths in Australia, which showed that 15 officers were killed by attacks in Australia between 1991 and 2007. Stabbings or shootings were the main causes of death.

Could Australia do things differently?

The UK primarily operates on the model of general duties police not being armed. They rely instead on backup from armed response teams if the need for lethal force arises. Authorisation to use lethal force is vested in senior officers.

The benefits of this system are clear. Between 2008 and 2012, England and Wales combined had just nine fatal police shootings, despite having a combined population more than double that of Australia.

The US has, on average, 400 fatal police shootings each year. To some degree, this is a reflection of its more liberal approach to gun ownership in the general population.

The high-profile police shooting of teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in August and the shooting this week of a 12-year-old holding a toy gun in Cleveland, Ohio, has brought the increasing militarisation and associated ethos in US law enforcement into focus.

Are police adequately trained?

As a young detective in the mid-1990s, I took part in a raid on a high-threat target. In those days, the Criminal Investigation Branch did their own raids and only in emergencies were the special weapons teams called upon. The job was poorly planned, with minimal briefings. We entered the house in the hours of darkness; we had no protective body armour or identifying vests on.

Predictably, the occupier of the house – a senior member of an outlaw motorcycle gang – challenged us with what appeared to be a rifle, but was actually a speargun. He was shot just after we entered the house. He survived, but what this experience highlighted is that instinct takes over for police in situations like this. There is no time to think though training scenarios; your reactions must be second nature.

All operational police in Queensland receive training in the use of firearms and other use of force options. Other Australian states conduct similar training based on the national guidelines for the use of lethal force by police.

In Queensland, operational police undergo Operational Skills and Tactics (OST) training once a year. This is hardly the repetitive training that allows you develop instinctive reactions, nor does it verse you well in knowing all of the options available to hand and which one to go to. The Queensland Police Union has called for firearms training 12 times per year.

The response of police in these situations is meant to be built upon the ethos of “consider all options and practise safety”. Part of this response is achieved by conducting a tactical threat assessment by considering the people, place and objects where the incident is occurring. One of these options is tactical containment, to let the situation de-escalate and allow negotiation with offenders.

In high-stress situations, it is probably a predictable result that police with minimal training will go to the most powerful use of force option: the firearm. In the non-fatal shooting at Rochedale last month, the victim was shot while allegedly driving a vehicle. This is a scenario that is expressly discouraged in training. A bullet won’t stop a vehicle. If it hits the driver it merely makes the vehicle uncontrolled.

Much of the three days’ training is wasted on irrelevant tasks such as memorising and naming gun parts and stripping the weapons down – tasks that in 28 years of policing I never had to do in the field.

Queensland Police use of force model. Queensland Police Service

Is a new culture emerging?

Recently, Queensland police commissioner Ian Stewart ordered all police to carry their firearms due to a perceived increased national security threat in the community. This messaging may well be reinforcing the idea that the firearm is the main use of force option.

In all of the Queensland shootings, the response of the police union has been immediate, assertive and public. Within hours of the fatal incidents and in the infancy of a thorough investigation, the union has defended the actions of officers and offered some commentary on the facts of the case.

In reality, no police officer wants to kill another human being. To avoid placing police in this invidious position, perhaps the focus of post-shooting investigations should not just be if the homicide was justifiable, but also if the homicide was avoidable.

Identifying these issues will allow for the development of best practice and reduce the need for the use of lethal force by police.

Editor’s note: Terry will be answering questions between 2 and 3pm AEDT on Wednesday November 26. Ask your questions about police use of lethal force in the comments below.

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