On last night’s Four Corners, Quentin McDermott examined the serial failures of police services around the country to deal appropriately with the ever-growing number of mentally ill people with whom they deal in the course of their duties.
Perhaps McDermott could have looked at the Northern Territory, where more traditional policing methods — such as the use of the “three-point hold” also known as “ground stabilisation” or “take-down” — has been implicated in several recent deaths.
And it appears that, unlike all of the matters examined by McDermott, the family of a mentally ill man who died following police use of force may get some measure of comfort that the justice system will examine the circumstances of his death and the training of NT police officers dealing with mentally ill people.
Yesterday ABC Darwin reported that NT police officer acting-sergeant Brad Fox had been charged with aggravated assault in relation to an incident at the Royal Darwin Hospital in December 2007 that ended with the death of the well-regarded filmmaker Bob Plasto.
According to his report into Plasto’s death, NT Coroner Greg Cavanagh on December 22, 2007 said NT police attended at Knuckey Street in central Darwin, where they found Plasto, who was:
“… shaking and sweating and speaking incoherently (and that they) believed … needed urgent medical assistance due to his mental state.”
Plasto was taken to the Royal Darwin Hospital emergency department, where he was examined by a doctor shortly after 4pm, who, according to the coroner, reported that:
“… he was ‘pleasant and co-operative.’ He was sweaty. She recorded ‘no insight into current state but does say he will do whatever I think he needs to get better’.”
Plasto was then “sectioned”. Responsibility for, and custody of, Plasto transferred from the NT police to the Royal Darwin Hospital as an involuntary patient.
Plasto remained at the emergency department — as did several NT police officers including acting-sergeant Brad Fox — waiting for the psychiatric registrar to assess him.
During that time:
The deceased, who was a chain smoker, repeatedly asked … for a smoke … The longer the deceased was waiting at the hospital, the more agitated he became.
Shortly before 6pm Plasto moved towards the external doors of the emergency ward, repeatedly stating that he wanted to have a smoke and “I want to go and get some air”, “I want to have fresh air”, “I want to go outside. I want to go outside.”
Some police officers tried to convince Plasto to stay inside, acting-sergeant Brad Fox was more abrupt, telling him to “Get back in the room”, “You’re not free to go just yet. You’re going to have to wait a little bit longer.”
The situation then escalated rapidly with Fox effecting what is known in police parlance as a “take-down”:
Very shortly, six or seven men including all four police officers became involved in the restraint of the deceased. Whilst on the ground, Fox and ACPO Eric Morrison applied significant weight to the deceased’s upper torso.
At one point, Fox was using his pectoral area to lie forward on the deceased’s left shoulder. At some stage, Fox’s right knee was also used to push down the deceased’s left scapula trying to effect a “3 point hold”.
The deceased was resisting and pushing up with his right hand. Acting-sergeant Fox says that he was using all his physical strength and weight. He described the intensity of the struggle as a 10 out of 10. He said it was possibly the hardest apprehension in that manner he had ever undertaken.
ACPO Morrison was putting his left knee on the deceased’s right pectoral. Fox also held the deceased’s head down with his left knee.
Dr Lai Heng Foong, the lead registrar in charge of the emergency ward:
… heard screaming from the flight deck and came running to the ambulance bay. Dr Foong shouted at the police in a very loud voice to back off a bit and “ease off the pressure”, “let us talk to him”.
She remembers very clearly seeing Fox place what appeared to be his whole weight on the deceased’s head so his face was completely crushed into the floor. Dr Foong saw the deceased trying to move his body and lift his head, she believed, in order to breathe and talk.
She observed that Fox’s knee was on top of his head while the deceased was turning red and later blue.
Dr Cromarty, Dr Foong and Dr Oh all saw the deceased begin to turn blue, and that shortly after that he stopped struggling. Dr Cromarty and Dr Foong shouted at the police that he was turning blue and that they had to get off him. Dr Foong said nothing happened and she again had to say: “Guys let go of him. He’s getting blue”.
Plasto was transferred into the intensive care unit but never recovered consciousness and died six days later.
Coroner Greg Cavanagh was scathing of the conduct of the NT police officers:
In my view the conduct of the police in this matter involved a litany of serious errors and misjudgments that led to the tragic and unnecessary death of the deceased.
More seriously, the deceased was not taken directly to Royal Darwin hospital. Instead, he was taken to the police station where he was kept in the back of a caged vehicle for 16 minutes. That conduct is unacceptable.
In my view the decision to use force against the deceased was not necessary and the police did not apply the minimum use of force.
I also find that if force was required to be used against the deceased, the force actually used on the deceased was unnecessary and excessive … I accept the evidence of the civilian witnesses that Fox applied his knee to the deceased’s head when it was lifted about 15 centimetres above the ground causing the deceased’s head to hit the floor. Fox’s conduct was not in accordance with the training provided by the NT police.
In making the decision to use force, the police members failed to take into account that the deceased was mentally ill, that he was in a distressed condition and was in an agitated and anxious state after an unnecessarily prolonged wait at the hospital.
Coroner Cavanagh also blasted the training provided to NT police in dealing with the mentally ill:
The training received by operational police about dealing with the mentally ill was clearly inadequate. Sergeant Hansen … acknowledged that the NT police were not given any specific training on negotiation or ‘tactical disengagement’ or communications with mentally ill people.
Bronwyn Hendry, the director of Mental Health in the NT, gave evidence of the training received by NT police and security guards in relation to mentally ill people. She regarded that training as inadequate.
Acting-sergeant Brad Fox remains on duty. He has been summonsed to appear in the Darwin Magistrates Court on November 9.