One half-hour university lecture was never going to prepare a policewoman for the moment she fired five shots that killed a psychiatric patient outside a Randwick dry-cleaning business.
Leading Senior Constable Melissa Paterson had only been on the beat for a few months when her police partner yelled: ”Shoot!”
She did as she was told.
A delusional Ali Hamie, 29, was shot dead on June 5, 2000. At the time, he was stabbing Senior Constable Benjamin Searl with a shard of glass.
”Mel had only got half an hour of training in mental health at the academy. That’s all they got,” Homicide Detective Inspector David Laidlaw explained to police during a mental health course this week.
”We’ve got time to think about it now, but she didn’t at the time.”
NSW Police were called out to almost 43,000 mental health incidents in 2013 – an 18 per cent rise from the previous year.
Yet more than 90 per cent of frontline officers had never done mental health training despite
being called out to suicides, threats of self-harm and violent incidents of so-called ”death by cop”, where people try to provoke police into killing them
This situation is changing quickly.
In February, the force initiated a one-day mental health intervention course that will reach every serving officer within two years.
Fairfax Media joined two dozen police as they underwent a specialist four-day course at Collaroy last week.
The officers flung up their arms when they had the chance to ask questions of a man who suffered from schizophrenia and a mother whose son was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.
”What is the best way to talk to you when you are feel anxious?” one officer asked. ”What can we do to calm the situation down?”
When asked about their experiences with the mentally ill, police in the room filled reams of butcher paper with comments, questions and areas where they felt they needed more training.
Many nodded in agreement as their colleagues said they wanted to learn how to better recognise different signs of mental ilness. Others spoke of the many long nights they had spent in hospitals, guarding people who were mentally distressed.
During a break between lectures, officers sipping tea and coffee spoke in huddled groups about how they had no real training to deal with such situations.
The issue of training has been raised during several inquests into police shootings.
It was again raised last week when a coroner found an officer who shot a mentally ill university student had carried out a ”hasty and precipitous” act and was not properly trained.
Elijah Holcombe, 24, died after being shot once in the chest by Senior Constable Andrew Rich in an Armidale laneway on June 2, 2009.
”It is clear that police have not been properly trained in how to deal with people who are suffering from a mental illness,” NSW Coroner Mary Jerram said.
”Rich had participated in a one-hour lecture as a trainee officer and later a couple of online tutorials.”
But Ms Jerram did acknowledge the inroads made by the force’s mental health intervention team, headed by Inspector Joel Murchie, who works closely with Superintendent Dave Donohue.
Sergeant Matt West of Rose Bay police is often called to help recover bodies of suicide victims and to try to coax people away from the edge of The Gap at Watsons Bay.
”Obviously, we are there to try and intervene and try to get the best help for the people we can – and the better the training we have, the better we can respond,” he said.
He said he wanted to learn more about the signs and symptoms of mental health so he could improve his negotiating skills.
Sergeant Matt West said he had been upset by the recent suicide of a well-known mental health patient in Paddington and wanted to be able to prevent deaths like his.
Public order and riot squad Inspector Graham Stokes, who has been in the job for 29 years, said he would have treated mentally ill people differently in the earlier days of his career had he been better educated.
”We are not going to be psychiatrists or professors, but we at least have an understanding about what that person is thinking or going to do. Which, I think, is a huge benefit,” Inspector Stokes said.
Clinical nurse Martin Collis spoke to the group extensively about different kinds of mental illnesses, signs and symptoms, and triggers to avoid.
”Don’t argue with them – reassure them, and remember the person is likely to be anxious and distressed.”
Senior Sergeant Matt Ireland gave police a refresher on mental health legislation and spoke about the best ways to detain people.
Inspector Murchie tried to make eye contact with every officer in the room as he said it was important for police to try to better understand the hardships endured by people with mental illnesses.
”People living with a mental illness lead very challenging lives. We should treat them with dignity and respect where we can.”
The one-day mental health intervention course is first of its kind in Australasia and is an addition to an already established four-day course.
This article first appeared on ‘Sydney Morning Herald’ on 10 May 2014.