Bourke St: Culture of fear stops Vic police from acting

A FORMER senior police officer believes a culture of fear within the force is creating "horrible and tragic" outcomes because officers only act "when their hand is forced".

The former cop, who served for 20 years in Victoria Police, said he didn't blame frontline police for not taking action in some circumstances because they were lashed by the public when things went wrong.

Police tactics - in particular around the pursuit of vehicles - has been hotly debated since Dimitrious 'Jimmy' Gargasoulas, 26, allegedly killed five people on January 20 by running them down in a car in Melbourne's CBD.

Police had been trying to capture him for 16 hours before the deaths in Bourke St Mall.

Much of the dismay has been directed at why the accused driver wasn't boxed in or forced from the road before he arrived in the city centre. The police union has claimed senior officers twice refused permission to ram Gargasoulas.

"The police are not really to blame for their failure to take action. It is the hierarchy and community that has created a police force that is afraid of negative consequences and punishment if they make the wrong call - so situations are allowed to escalate to a point where their hand is forced, so to speak," the former cop said.

The police union alleges there were two chances to ram accused killer Dimitrious ‘Jimmy’ Gargasoulas .
The police union alleges there were two chances to ram accused killer Dimitrious ‘Jimmy’ Gargasoulas . Tony Gough

He drew parallels with the hostage crisis in Sydney's Martin Place in December 2014.

"A similar case was the Lindt cafe in Sydney where once again the police took no action until a hostage had been shot," he said. "You only have to look at what is said about police every time there is a shooting."

The officer, who asked not to be identified, told the "horrible and tragic outcomes" happened because "our police" were too afraid to take action.

"There needs to be greater community discussion about what we expect from our police. Night courts have been tried before and didn't help, we have police in armoured trucks and dressed like soldiers already and that cannot be the answer if the police feel powerless to act until a person has died."

The former Melbourne detective said risk aversion was nothing new and really began to creep in during the 1990s when Project Beacon was introduced. The aim of Project Beacon was to retrain all Victoria Police officers in alternatives to firing their guns, where protection of human life was the number one priority. It was brought about because of a rising number of fatal police shootings.

Under the "Safety First Philosophy" the success of an operation was primarily judged on the extent to which the use of force is avoided or minimised, according to a report by the Victorian police watchdog the Office of Public Integrity.

"It really started way back then. In response to the outcry over the police shootings, frontline police were trained to stand back and wait... basically do nothing until reinforcements and specially trained police arrived. That culture against risk really started more than 20 years ago and is ingrained throughout the force.

"It's very difficult on frontline police who see what needs to be done but are stopped from doing so in case all the armchair experts whack them for making the wrong call."

Deputy Victoria Police Commissioner Andrew Crisp told media on Wednesday there had to be a balance between protecting the community and its members and officers would not pursue offenders driving on the wrong side of the road or at high speed.

He said real-life pursuits are not like they are in the movie Lethal Weapon where, when cars are shot at, the driver dies and the car stops immediately.

Victoria Police deputy commissioner Andrew Crisp. “We are not a risk averse organisation.”
Victoria Police deputy commissioner Andrew Crisp. “We are not a risk averse organisation.” News Corp Australia

"It's extremely difficult to shoot at a moving vehicle. It's even more difficult to hit a tyre ... the vehicle will not stop, it will travel forward," he told reporters.

"There's every likelihood we might miss the vehicle and who knows where that round or those rounds might go."

He denied Victoria Police was soft on crime. "We are not a risk averse organisation. We attend critical incidents day in and day out and we resolve those incidents. If you want to talk about being risk averse then I will talk about safety, and it is critical our members go home every day."

He was "extremely disappointed" an email he sent to members last September was reported this week in the media as a "directive". In fact, he said, it was a "safety message" following an increase in offenders ramming police vehicles.

The email told officers not to shoot at or intercept stolen or suspect cars. "Plan your approach and response when intercepting a stolen or suspect vehicle - time is on your side," the email read, as published by the Herald Sun on Wednesday.

Victoria's police union said there is "burning anger" among officers in the wake of the Bourke Street rampage over policies they believe prevent them from intercepting "drug-crazed lunatics".

"Our members' views around the current pursuit policy range from great disappointment to burning anger," Police

Association of Victoria assistant secretary Bruce McKenzie said.

"The current pursuit policy handcuffs them considerably when it ought to be our members who are handcuffing the drug-crazed lunatics that seem to be appearing on our streets."

News Corp Australia

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