Written by: Rick Sarre, Professor of Law and Criminal Justice, University of South Australia
Australians woke to the news last weekend that a 19-year-old Warlpiri man had been shot and killed by a police officer in Yuendumu, 300km north-west of Alice Springs.
A confrontation had occurred after two officers went to a property to arrest the man for breach of a condition of his suspended sentence. One report said the man lunged at the police officer as the pair approached him. Acting deputy commissioner Michael White said:
During that time a struggle ensued and two shots were fired and [the young man] sadly passed away later.
The community outrage has been swift, with a crowd of Yuendumu residents rallying outside the police station, demanding justice. The matter has now been classified as a death in custody.
Why is this still happening in modern Australia? Surely police have learned lessons from past tragedies, and they’re trained today to use their guns as a last resort. After all, they have tasers and other non-lethal weapons, don’t they?
In attempting to answer these questions, it’s useful to make some observations about current police practice and the available research.
Most Australian police officers carry guns
The first observation about last weekend’s tragedy is a simple one. Firearm deaths occur in heated situations because police carry guns as standard issue.
In 1970, only the New South Wales Police Force was habitually armed. Over time, policies were introduced in each Australian jurisdiction that allowed police officers to gauge their own level of vulnerability and request a firearm in circumstances they perceived as dangerous. As the years passed, this became a very subjective assessment.
The consequence of this policy of accretion is that firearms are now carried by most patrol officers in all Australian states and territories most of the time.
Police direction on “shoot to kill” is clear. An officer can use lethal force against another person when there’s a reasonable threat of death or serious injury to the officer, another officer or a member of the public. The difficulty is in determining the reasonableness of the threat. In the heat of the moment this, too, involves a highly subjective assessment.
So does the routine arming of police make the public safer? Yes and no.
A civilian is 14 times more likely to be shot and killed by a police firearm in the US than by a police firearm in Australia, and 42 times more likely to be shot and killed by a police firearm in the US than by a police firearm in Germany.
But police in all three nations routinely carry firearms. So, the mere arming of police doesn’t appear to be the key factor in civilian deaths. There must be something more at play.
Best practice for firearms training
There is. The research tells us the number of civilian deaths caused by police firearms varies according to four important factors: the extent of police militarisation; the rules that pertain to the use of lethal force; the standards of firearms training; and the gun culture in the society in which officers operate.