Thursday, May 1, 2014

NSW: Elijah Holcombe not a threat when shot by police: coroner

A mentally ill university student who was shot and killed by a police officer did not brandish a knife threateningly before being shot as the officer claimed but was the victim of a "hasty and precipitous" act by an officer who was not properly trained, a coroner had found.

Elijah Holcombe, 24, died after being shot once in the chest by Senior Constable Andrew Rich in an Armidale laneway on June 2, 2009.

Mr Holcombe was suffering from a mental health breakdown characterised by episodes of paranoia and delusions when Senior Constable Rich and Senior Constable Greg Dufty were asked to find him and a car he had taken from his father the day before.

When the plain-clothes police officer, Constable Rich, found and then chased Mr Holcombe, the victim grabbed a bread knife from a cafe and ran into a laneway.

The officer said he told Mr Holcombe to drop the knife and then fired a single, fatal shot.

Constable Rich said he was acting in self-defence, as the young man had come towards him brandishing the knife.

But, on Thursday, NSW Coroner Mary Jerram rejected the claim that the young man had been acting aggressively.

"Most of those who witnessed the incident said they saw behaviour [by Elijah] that was passive or non-aggressive throughout," Ms Jerram said.  "Those who saw the bread knife said it was dangling limply from his hand."

Ms Jerram said Constable Rich's decision to chase Elijah after first speaking to him a few streets from where the shooting occurred, was based on "spurious and spontaneous" reasons.

The officer should have called his station which would no doubt have made him aware of the broad warning to police that Elijah was "extremely scared of police".

Instead, the officer decided at this point, without cause, that he needed to arrest Elijah, claiming later that, after observing the young man's demeanour, he was concerned for his safety and that of others.  "Elijah's demeanour was not a basis for depriving him of his liberty," Ms Jerram said.

"It is clear that police have not been properly trained in how to deal with people who are suffering from a mental illness.

"Rich had participated in a one-hour lecture as a trainee officer and later a couple of online tutorials."

She acknowledged that NSW Police was in the process of rolling out a full-day workshop on dealing with the mentally ill.

Speaking outside court, Elijah's father Jeremy Holcombe and his lawyer called on the Director of Public Prosecutions to reconsider its previous decision not to lay any charges in relation to the matter.

"It has been five years since we lost our beautiful son, brother and friend," said Mr Holcombe, choking back tears.  "The allegation that Elijah had to be destroyed in order to protect the safety of another person had never been accepted by those who knew him best."

Mr Holcombe said that Senior Constable Rich had consistently refused to repeat his allegation, that Elijah had threatened him, under oath and with the potential for cross-examination.

"We have always maintained that Senior Constable Rich is entitled to the presumptions of innocence but we ask 'what about Elijah's right?'" Mr Holcombe said.

"We were unable to protect Elijah from harm but we remain committed to protecting his reputation.  "We must once again respectfully ask the NSW DPP to reconsider this matter for criminal proceedings."

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