NT Police’s new claims on use of force contradicted by T-shirt and tactics instructor’s evidence

by | Jun 8, 2022 | Cops, News | 0 comments

The NT Police executive has told all sworn officers an “erroneous belief” by some members that “knife equals gun in all circumstances” was not part of official police training, in a statement that contradicts the sworn testimony in the Constable Zach Rolfe murder trial by the NT Police College’s former officer in charge of defensive tactics training Senior Sergeant Andrew Barram.

An “internal broadcast” sent to all sworn members on Tuesday, stated that protocols would be re-written because some members held the erroneous belief or misconception that the threat of a knife should be considered the equivalent of a gun in all circumstances, when officers or members of the public are faced with a physical threat.

The phrase was widely repeated during the Supreme Court murder trial of Constable Rolfe by NT Police officers, including by Snr Sgt Barram, who trained officers and who once was involved in the circulation of a T-shirt with an image depicting the phrase embroidered on it.

The memo comes less than three months before a full coronial inquest is scheduled into the shooting death of Kumanjayi Walker that will examine the NT Police’s policies and procedures that led to his death.

Several sources, including a former NT Police firearms trainer, have told the NT Independent “knife equals gun” was part of police recruit training, and the note from executives could put young officers at risk, making them fear using a gun to protect themselves.

The note to members contradicts itself on whether the “knife equals gun” was part of the training, at first stating it was possibly part of training at one point.

“This phrase [edged weapon equals gun] may have derived from past training, and has since been used incorrectly, poorly explained [sic] or wrongfully interpreted,” it said.

But it followed with: “Operational safety training does not use the phrase as it bears no true resemblance in relation to our member’s situational awareness, available tactical options and decision making when confronted with a weapon including an edge weapon as delivered in training when confronted with an edged weapon.”

However, the prosecution’s use of force expert during the Rolfe murder trial was Snr Sgt Andrew Barram, the officer in charge of defensive tactics training at the NT Police College, who acknowledged under cross examination that police recruits were taught that “knife equals gun”.

Const Rolfe was acquitted of murder in March, and was also cleared of two alternative charges of manslaughter and engaging in a violent act causing death, in connection to the shooting death of Kumamjayi Walker in Yuendumu in 2019, who stabbed him in the shoulder during a failed arrest inside a house.

On his first day of cross examination Snr Sgt Barram was shown a picture of a T-shirt that had an image embroidered on the left breast which had a knife inside one side of a set of handcuffs, with a gun on the other side and an ‘equals sign’ in the middle.

A t-shirt made for a Defence Tactics Instructor Course.

He agreed with defence barrister David Edwardson that it was “self-evident from the face on the photograph [that] it depicts an important part of the teaching of these cadets” that “knife equals gun”.

Snr Sgt Barram said un-offical T-shirts were a tradition in police training courses, and went on to clarify that the garment in question was not made for a police recruit training course, but rather for a Defence Tactics Instructor Course, created by officers who were qualifying to train police recruits in the use of force.

The next day, Mr Edwardson put to the prosecutions’ star witness that “knife equals gun” was something that was taught to police recruits.

And it’s the fact of an edged weapon that gives rise to this notion that we’ve talked about, knife equals gun or edged weapon equals gun, however you want to express,” he said.

Yes,” Snr Srg Barram responded.

“And that’s a descriptive that was instilled in all persons who were trained as a police officer and specifically, Zachary Rolfe, when he was going through as a cadet?” Mr Edwardson asked.

Yes,” Snr Sgt Barram responded again.

Executive state training material will be changed but won’t say why – ahead of coronial inquest

The internal police message from the executive ended by stating that the operational safety and use of force instructions would be updated and put into one single general order that would come into effect in the future.

Questions to the NT Police media unit went unanswered, including why the document had still not been updated almost three months after the Rolfe trial ended and roughly the same time another Indigenous man was shot by police after allegedly threatening officers with a spear in Palmerston. In the latter case, police have not said what if any action would be taken against the officers involved.

The message from the executive did not say why, if there was a serious problem with officers’ understanding of when they could use a gun, the police executive would wait three months after the end of the trial to clarify it.

They also did not explain why, if that phrase was not part of the training material, what was incorrect or unclear about the current training material that meant it needed updating. The message also did not offer further training to officers who were unsure when to use a gun when threatened with a knife, but instead recommended reading suggestions.

Aside from Snr Sgt Barram’s testimony, multiple police sources, including a former NT Police firearms trainer, have told the NT Independent the phrase is used verbally in a colloquial way when training police recruits, and in compulsory retraining of officers. But the phrase was not formally included in the Operational Safety Tactics Training manual, which details specifically how officers should respond in various situations and when threatened with different weapons.

The police executive’s note went on to say police training directed that when confronted with any weapon, officers should consider the principles of ‘threat, time, distance and cover adherence”

“Adherence to these taught principles and added situational awareness in dynamic, unpredictable and at times, dangerous environments will provide members with the optimum response to maintaining everyone’s safety and ability to make them more informed [on] use of force decisions,” the note said.

“When faced with a life or death situation in which a member has to make a decision to use force that is likely to cause death, or serious harm, lethal force should always be used as a last resort and only to protect life.

“If other tactical options are available, members need to risk assess and consider if there is a less than lethal alternative and is likely to be effective.”

Reaction to the message about use of a gun when faced with a knife

Former NT Police officer Carey Joy worked in the Territory Response Group, led the Immediate Response Team initial task force – which Const Rolfe was later part of – and was also a federal agent in the Tactical Response Team.

He said he thought the intent of the police executive’s message was about the failed police prosecutions case against Const Rolfe and were changing policies to ensure they don’t lose any future “Rolfe cases” where an officer shoots someone “based on common sense”.

“It leaves the door wide open for prosecutions to attack a member,” he said.

“The general rule or concept in training scenarios when a role-playing offender presented an edged weapon and they were approached by two police officers at a minimum, one officer must have a lethal force option ready and the second can attempt a less than lethal if safe to do so.

“In NTPOL training we were always taught that if we were confronted with anyone armed with an edged weapon that the minimum reactionary gap that we could safely afford to the offender was 7 to 8 metres. It was always deemed and proven that within seven metres, if the offender ran at the police officer, he or she could be stabbed before they would have time to release and raise their firearm.

“Each situation is of course different and we need to remember that there is no hard and fast rules on the range of weapons which are identified as being suitable to respond to with lethal force.

“We also need to remember that the offender does not have to be armed with a weapon as such to justify the use of lethal force.

“The danger with this latest broadcast direction is now our new 18-year-old officers will read this and be terrified feeling it means if someone has an edged weapon they are not allowed to use their firearm.

“This may see young officers injured or killed as they will be too scared to utilise their protective weapon options for fear of executive punishment.

“The NT Police says to use all tactical options, I guess they forgot that basic instruction when they deployed the Immediate Response Team illegally to Yuendumu. They also had heaps more options but they chose not to use them.”

 

The firearms trainer, who did not want to be named, confirmed instructors used the “knife equals gun” line verbally, but it was not in the OSTT manual. However, he also said the internal broadcast could cause officers to be injured or killed.

“Police shouldn’t be thinking about detailed policy and procedure when someone is coming up to them with a knife, an edge weapon or even a blunt object,” they said.

“Generally speaking, if someone is coming at you with a knife they are not trying to make you a sandwich.

“If someone is approaching you, you should draw your firearm.

“It is a little bit like putting on a seat belt. You may not need it but it is there to protect you if you do. If you draw the gun you don’t have to use it to resolve the situation but you have got to have the correct equipment to deal with it.

“Some people talk about use of tasers or pepper spray but that is like trying to take the wheel nuts off your car with your fingers, you just don’t do. You have to have the right tool for the right job.

“If you start second guessing, that is when there is a danger for an officer to get injured or killed. It casts further doubt in officers’ minds.

“With this broadcast the executive are leading members up the garden path. I can tell you when I am confronted with a knife I am pulling my gun.”

Another former officer who was trained the year after Const Rolfe, agreed the “knife equals gun” was used as a colloquial verbal instruction, and said among the detailed written instructions, officers should respond with an equal or greater level of force than they are presented with.

“There is a continuation of assessing your option. But in a split second decision it becomes an issue,” they said.

“We are aware you have to evaluate the circumstance but if you feel like a life is under threat, 100 per cent I would pull out my gun.

“But when you are doing your training you have to sit an exam and quote verbatim from the INCENCIRE [an acronym for isolate, contain, evacuate, negotiate, conclude,  investigate, rehabilitate, evaluate].”

Other testimony in the Rolfe trial about ‘knife equals gun’

During opening submissions in Constable Rolfe’s murder trial, the police officer’s barrister David Edwardson said his client had been taught when an officer was confronted by an edged weapon, they should draw their gun and be prepared to use it.

He said when shooting Mr Walker, Mr Rolfe had done no more than respond in the way in which he had been trained.

When he took the stand, Const Rolfe gave his understanding of what to do if someone pulled an edged weapon on him.

“The way I was trained was, if someone was threatening us with an edged weapon, our first response was to go for our firearm, unless that was impossible … You only draw your firearm if you’re prepared to pull the trigger,” he told the court.

“The training was always: you shoot until the threat is incapacitated, no matter how many rounds that takes.”

Former Australian Federal Police special operations veteran and assistant commissioner Ben McDevitt, who was was called as a witness in Const Rolfe’s defence, told the court the officer had acted in line with his training.

Mr McDevitt said the training permitted an officer to use their firearm when an offender posed a threat to them or a colleague with an edged weapon.

In the committal hearing, Constable James Kierstenfeldt, who was also present at the shooting, told the court police training was clear that “if an edged weapon is produced by another person, then we are to take our firearm out”.

“We have a little catchphrase of ‘knife equals gun’,” he told the court.

Other officers provided similar statements.

The coronial inquest into the death of Kumanjayi Walker and the NT Police’s procedures will begin in September.

 

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