Allan is a young adult with autism and epilepsy. Veronica and Carl, his parents and working carers, long to see him have an independent life but live in fear of his vulnerability in a community that does not understand mental health or disability issues.

They worry his quirky and socially inept behaviours may cause him to be reported to the police – and that he may be harmed by officers not trained well enough to realise he is not a threat – not realising he is just a young man with disability, struggling to understand what is happening, and not knowing how to communicate with them.

Parents fear

When Allan walked to the shops alone recently, bought a newspaper, then walked home with it, they dared to believe that a time might come when Allan would no longer need a full-time carer and Veronica might be able to resume her career.

Then there was a story on the news; a young woman with a disability very like Allan’s shot dead by a police officer. There was a video clip of the incident on the internet. And suddenly it seemed they couldn’t open the paper or turn on the news without encountering another story about incidents involving police officers and people with mental illness.  

And a frightening number of these ended in violence.

When Veronica thought of Allan being challenged by an aggressive young police officer, she shuddered to think what could happen. He would not be going alone to the shops again – and he’d been so proud of himself, too.

Veronica and Carl’s fears are not unfounded. NSW Police officers have shot dead 35 people in the last 20 years and 19 of them were people with mental illness – 54 per cent.

Since 2014, frontline police officers in NSW have been receiving training in dealing with mental health issues. The ‘intensive’ course takes a single day. It’s hard to argue with Greens MP David Shoebridge, who obtained the above statistics under the Government Information Public Access Act, when he describes the training as laughably inadequate.   

“We’ve got a tragic under-resourcing of mental health facilities,” he says. “And it’s not just in NSW – that’s a nationwide problem. It means that frontline police are the frontline responders and those relatively junior police are going out there, dealing with mentally ill people and, to be quite frank, they haven’t got the training and they haven’t got the support. You put those two things together, you have a very potent, tragic, often-fatal mix.”

The case that alerted Mr Shoebridge was the shooting of Dunukul Mokmool at Sydney’s Central Station in July 2017. Mr Mokmool, who had a long history of substance abuse and mental illness, had fled his home under the paranoid delusion that family members were going to harm him. At Central, he assaulted a florist in his shop, slashed himself with a pair of scissors, then confronted transport police – who fired four shots and killed him.

“When I saw the fatal shooting at Central Station of what looked like a clearly mentally ill man surrounded by police,” Mr Shoebridge said, “it immediately brought to mind the death of Roni Levi on Bondi Beach.”

On June 28, 1997, Roni Levi had just been released from St Vincent’s Hospital after treatment for a delusional episode. He was seen walking on Bondi Beach with a knife in his hand. Six police officers were soon on the scene. They’d say Levi lunged at them with the knife before two of their number fired two shots each and killed him.

It happened that a professional photographer took a sequence of pictures that showed Mr Levi was some distance from the police and no threat to them. The two officers who fired were both under investigation for connections with the drugs trade – the evidence was they’d been out partying the night before – and both were later discharged from the force.

After he saw the CCTV footage of the Central Station shooting, it seemed to Mr Shoebridge that, in the 20 years since the Levi killing, “not a lot had changed in terms of police reaction.”     

There have in fact been changes. Since 2009, NSW has had the NSW Police Force Mental Health Intervention Team – which won a LIFE Award at the 2015 National Suicide Prevention Conference. The team develops ‘policy, strategy, operational coordination and training’ – but it does not engage on the front line.

Each year it puts 300 officers through a four-day program to train them as specialist first-response officers in their local areas. It is estimated only about 10 per cent of officers have done the four-day course.

The Intervention Team also designed the one-day course all trainees have undergone since 2014, introduced after statistics showed a 15 per cent increase in 2013 of incidents involving police and people with mental health problems. 

“The idea that one day’s training on mental health will appropriately skill police constables to deal with the repeated interactions they have with mentally ill people in the community is laughable,” says Mr Shoebridge.   

NSW Police Commissioner, Michael Fuller, pointed out what a difficult task officers had in dealing with incidents involving ‘disturbed’ people. “If somebody is in direct threat of being killed by that person, then whether it’s mental health or substance abuse, quite often police have to make a split-second decision to take a life to save a life.”

In neither the Levi shooting nor the Mokmool case was anyone’s life under threat. Each was shot four times.

At Kelso near Bathurst last year, Ian Fackender, a patient with schizophrenia and medication side-effect problems was shot five times, in his own bedroom. 

Commissioner Fuller told the ABC’s 7.30 Report:

“The test of our success, unfortunately, can’t be around trend up or trend down. Clearly, I want the trend to be zero. But for mine, it’s about root cause analysis – is there anything else that we could have done? If there is, then we will do it. I just want to give the community an assurance that we are not hiding from oversight in terms of the way we use force. But in many cases, whilst we will get recommendations and things that we can improve, rarely has there been a finding by a coroner or otherwise that it was an unlawful shooting – as tragic as that may be.”

The story that woke Veronica and Carl’s fears involved a 22-year-old woman with Asperger’s Syndrome, Courtney Topic, shot dead in a fast-food store’s carpark in Sydney’s west.

Police had been called on a report of an agitated young woman with a knife in her hand.

A motorist, Ashton Tuimaseve, filmed the ensuing incident on his mobile phone.

“Five, six cops and one lady standing in the middle of them,” he told the 7.30 Report. “She just stood there and they were yelling at her. She had no emotion on her face. The next thing you know, she’s taken to one of the cops and he’s pulled the trigger.”       

Courtney’s father, Ron, gave an account of how Courtney described her interface with the world: “Dad, you know how I like art? Do you know what a blank canvas is? That’s how I see people’s expressions. I don’t know if people are happy or sad or if they want to engage or they don’t want to engage.”

She never went out on her own. Yet that morning she took a knife and went alone to the shopping centre.     

Reading about the shooting, Veronica was struck by the ‘blank canvas’ analogy. That perfectly described Allan’s difficulties. He had never learned to recognise people’s facial signals. Going to the shop to buy a paper he had a script which he’d rehearsed over and over.

Autism isn’t Allan’s only problem. He also has an epileptic condition which periodically causes him to zone out. He stares at nothing, not blinking, sometimes rolling his head, sometimes nodding. He may remain in this catatonic state for half an hour or more. Usually when he snaps out of it, he doesn’t know he’s been gone. But other times he might scream and lash out or bite savagely at his own arm.        

Medication has greatly reduced the frequency of such seizures. But now Veronica and Carl are asking themselves what might happen if Allan disconnected at the newsagent’s say, then snapped back in. What if the newsagent called the police? What if Allan lashed out at a police officer?”

“Training or no training, police are people,” Veronica says.

“As in any section of the population, there are going to be a lot of them – maybe a majority – who see mentally ill people, anyone with a disability, as freakish and dangerous.”

“Or maybe contagious,” Carl puts in.  

“Police watch television like other people do,” Veronica continues.

“People, nowadays, learn their behaviours watching television. And the usual solution to a problem is you blow it away. Bang! Bang! Bang!” 

“Also, it’s a power thing,” Carl says.

“Here’s a young officer with all this high-tech equipment slung about him like a frontline soldier. He has a gun on his hip like a cowboy in an old western movie. He carries a gun, whereas ordinary people aren’t allowed to. That sets him above the rest of us. He has a very simple answer to any problem that might confront him. Maybe he gets to wondering what it would be like to use that gun in a real-life situation. Maybe like everyone else he gets frustrated sometimes.”

Education is part of the answer, something more than a one-day course. But there also needs to be channels of communication so that specialist officers can arrive swiftly at the scene of an incident – or at least advise the officers at the top.

And maybe there needs to be a more thorough psychological screening of police force applicants.

“That poor girl,” Veronica says of the Courtney Topic shooting. “A whole bunch of officers yelling at her, pointing guns at her. How’s she supposed to react? I think of Allan in that situation and I shudder.”         

The Courtney Topic inquest is presently underway in Sydney.