ONTD Political

Capsicum spray and Tasers were not issued when P.M Newton resigned from the police, but the heavy responsibility of using deadly force was. She tells us about the job where even on good days someone might die.



I used to carry a gun. It wasn't mine. It was issued to me by the state to be used only when a special set of circumstances existed. I had to learn those circumstances, with their arcane legal language involving fleeing felons and reasonable apprehensions, off by heart. I can't remember them now.

I never loved my gun. It was there, usually in my bag because I was a detective. There were times when I was actually able to forget I that had one at all.

But of course, it was still there, along with the expectation that I would use it if necessary. The truth of the matter was that any time I had to take it out of my bag, out of its holster, click the safety off, and extend my index finger into the ready position, my hands would shake.

It was the potentiality of the thing. Inert, cold and heavy, but latent with the haptic madness of heat and sound. The tremors in my hands reminding me of what it was designed to do, the eruption of it, the kick of it, confirming its fundamental nature. I haven't held a gun for over 15 years, but whenever I hear or read about a police shooting, one where they have shot someone, or where someone has shot them, the weight and the jump of that gun returns.

Capsicum spray and Tasers were not part of police appointments when I resigned. When they came in I thought any alternative to deadly force had to be a good thing. I don't know what paragraphs of police instructions have to be learnt off by heart in order to know when and how to use them. But I do know that I, like many, watched the death of Roberto Laudisio Curti on a Sydney street and wept. Hallucinating on LSD, having the baddest of bad trips, he died in abject terror, surrounded by police using this alternative to deadly force.

It brought back a 30-year-old memory from the start of my police career. My class had reassembled at the Police Academy after our year as probationary constables working in stations all over the state. There was all the typical big noting of young police with more adrenaline than experience, exchanging stories of car chases, exciting arrests - I can't remember any of them.

One story stuck. It wasn't flashy or thrilling, but as I watched the chain of errors that led to the death of that terrified young student, that story came back to me, along with the way my friend had told it to me, low key and with a certain pride. He'd been working with a middle-aged sergeant in the city, on a weekend night shift, dealing with the usual round of drunks and bashings and agro. Then they'd been called to an incident involving a young man. When they went to arrest him he was behaving oddly. My friend recognised what was wrong.

The guy was having a very bad trip. My friend told me how he'd soothed the man's hallucinations, how he'd put his arms around him so he could whisper into his ear as they walked up the steps to the Sydney Police Centre. How he'd continued to murmur assurances, encouraging him to enjoy the trip, to go with it, not to fight it, not to waste it. As my friend explained to me with a cheeky grin, he knew what was going on, he knew what it was like, he'd been there, he'd done that, and he knew how to calm the man, how to deal with him safely, non-violently.

Up until now, whenever I'd recalled that story I'd always thought of it as a wry example of my mate's laconic style. Now I'll always think of it as the kind of style that could have saved a life.


It takes a bit of life experience, a bit of empathy, and a lot of patience to talk to people who are drunk or drug affected or who have mental health issues, or who tick all of those boxes simultaneously. You see no one is ever happy when the police arrive, not really. It's not like the fireys or the ambos. If people are happy to see the police it's generally an indication of just how desperate and hopeless their situation has become. Have a look at Case Study 32 in the Ombudsman's report into taser use and imagine doing that night after night, year after year.

It took me a while to find the words to answer the question - why did you leave the police? After 13 years I was profoundly sad and imagining the years ahead made me even sadder. Eventually I came up with the words. I'd got sick of meeting people for the first time on the worst day of their life.

And by sick, I mean heart sick, soul sick, sick to death, sick of myself, sick of what I was becoming, sick of it. Because it's not only the meeting, it's the hours of talking, cajoling, yelling, crying, blaming, begging, hating that you deal with. You don't just meet people; you are forced to become intimate with them at the worst time of their life. And quite often they blame you for causing it, and sometimes, as in the case of Roberto Laudisio Curti and his family, they're right.

There are some jobs, like police, and doctors, and train drivers, and truck drivers, where when you have a bad day at the office, when you make a mistake, you can kill someone. And policing is a job where sometimes, when you don't make a mistake, you still kill someone.

I was lucky. I never fired my gun other than in training. Though that's another question people often ask. And sometimes they have a look in their eyes when they ask it, like they're hoping I'll say yes. And I wonder - who is it that you think it would have been OK for me to kill?

Because you don't take out your gun to scare people. You don't take it out to wound people. It's not that you're given permission to kill; you're just given a set of circumstances in which killing can - perhaps - be held to have been lawful. And where not using it could lead to deaths and injuries you might have prevented.

The gun that rattled around in the bottom of my bag grew increasingly heavy over the years - my unease about carrying it adding to the weight. I began to doubt that I had the instinct to use it. And that made me a danger, to the public and to the people I worked with. I was expected to use it. That was the social contract.

I have met and worked with police who have used their guns. I don't remember any of their stories.

The story I do remember is of a friend who was posted in a country town. Working alone at night she was called to a domestic, she knew the names, she knew the circumstances. The man had a habit of going off his meds and over indulging on marijuana until he'd have a psychotic episode, get scheduled, straighten up and come home to do it all over again. That night he opened the door with a knife in his hand, held high above his shoulder.

Her instinct was not to draw her gun and fire, but to step back, to back right off, retreat, run away. He was alone in the house; no one else was at risk. So she went and gathered reinforcements, it's a country town, so they were neighbours, people who knew him, and they all returned, manhandled him without his knife into the back of a police van where he made the four hour journey to the closest psych ward.

Every time I read or hear a story about a person with a mental illness dying at the hands of police, I think of her. I think of the guy whose life she saved that night. And I also think of Senior Constables Robert Spears and Peter Addison who went to a domestic at Crescent Head, met a man with a Ruger rifle (PDF) and both died.


These days when I pick up my bag it's weighted down with a book and a laptop, pens and notebooks. I write now, and I work part-time in a university library. One of my workmates likes to remind people getting stressed out about the job that we're not doing; brain surgery. No one's going to die at the end of the day if we make a mistake. We truly are the lucky ones.


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