When Can a Police Officer Shoot to Kill in New South Wales?

NSW Police have shot dead a man who was allegedly approaching the front doors of residences in Sydney’s lower north shore whilst holding two ‘chef-style’ knives.

Officers from the North Shore Police Area Command were called to Alexander Avenue in North Willoughby after reports were made that a man was threatening residents.

It is alleged that the two responding officers were confronted by the man, with a constable subsequently discharging a firearm.

The man, named as 41-year-old Steven Pampalian, died at the scene after being shot four times, with police noting that there were no other injuries reported.

Witnesses have reported to the media that Pampalian was shirtless and knocking on the doors of various houses whilst making threats.

Assistant Police Commissioner, Leanne McCusker said that whilst he did not enter any homes, he displayed: “erratic behaviour, aggressiveness and chasing after people down the street.”

“Police were called by members of the community, by multiple calls, with the concern of the erratic behaviour and aggressiveness, and police were there, as we are, to protect the community.” she continued.

Prior to the offices’ arrival, he is alleged to have been yelling “I’ll kill her, I’ll kill her.”

He is alleged to have run at the police, whilst holding the two large knives.

“Certainly, Taser was a tactical option available,” McCusker said.

She however noted that: “he ran at police and, as I said, the two large knives that he had on him at the time were what I would be describing as large, chef-style knives.”

A critical incident team from the State Crime Command’s Homicide Squad will now investigate the circumstances surrounding the man’s death, including the discharge of a police firearm.

This investigation will be subject to an independent review by the Law Enforcement Conduct Commission, and a report will be prepared for the Coroner.

Police have noted that the man lived locally and was known to the police.

It is not clear at this stage was triggered the incident, but neighbours have voiced concerns that it is a mental health related incident.

The officers involved are receiving welfare support.

How Often Do Police Shootings Occur in Australia?

The Australian Institute of Criminology found in a report on deaths in custody in 2021-22, that there were 22 deaths in police custody or custody-related operations.

The largest number (nine) occurred in NSW, whereas there were six in Queensland, five in Victoria, and one in Western Australia and South Australia. No deaths were recorded in Tasmania, the Northern Territory, or the Australian Capital Territory.

18 of these deaths occurred during ‘close police contact’ such as in police stations, or due to a police shooting or raid, with 6 shot dead by police.

In 2019-20, 16 deaths were attributable to police shootings, which was the highest number of shooting deaths since record keeping began in 1989-20.

There was a 78% increase in fatal police shootings between 2018-19 and 2019-20.

Since record keeping began, Australian police have shot dead approximately 176 people.

Studies have previously identified mental illness as a common feature amongst those deceased.

Are police Allowed to Shoot Suspects?

In NSW, what level of force police officers may use is governed by Part 18 of the Law Enforcement (Powers and Responsibilities) Act 2002 (NSW).

Officers may use such force as is ‘reasonably necessary’ to make an arrest or to prevent the escape of a suspect after arrest, when exercising the power of arrest, as per section 231.

Section 230 more generally provides that it is lawful for a police officer exercising a lawful function to use such force as is reasonably necessary to exercise that relevant function.

Factors that will shape what is deemed ‘reasonable’ includes whether a suspect is resisting, as well as the suspect’s age, gender, size, fitness, and skill level compared to that of the officers present.

Defence equipment or ‘tactical options’ that may be available to police include a baton, capsicum spray, a taser, or a gun.

Notably, officers are trained to use firearms as a last resort, and they should only be utilised when seeking to shoot to kill in self-defence.

This essentially provides that firearms should only be used where there is an imminent threat of death or serious injury to the officers themselves or a member of the community.

In the circumstances, the act of shooting must be reasonable in response to such a threat.

When discharging a firearm, officers are trained to aim at the torso rather than a leg or arm, to avoid missing the target and impacting a bystander.

If a use of force is deemed to be ‘excessive’ an officer’s actions may be found unlawful, which leaves them liable to criminal charges alike to any normal citizen.

Furthermore, whether any level of force is permissible will also depend upon the lawfulness of the exercised power, such as whether an arrest was lawful.

However, there is an exception to this general rule where the incident involved is declared to be a terrorist act.

Officers responding are permitted to use lethal force (that is reasonably necessary in the circumstances as they perceive them) to defend any persons threatened by the terrorist act or to prevent or terminate their unlawful deprivation of liberty.

This is outlined in section 24B of the Terrorism (Police Powers) Act 2002 (NSW).

Whilst the section does reference defence of any person, it also permits lethal force to ‘prevent or terminate’ unlawful deprivation of liberty, which appears to enable officers to shoot dead a terrorist suspect who is not posing an imminent threat of causing death or serious injury.

The Act provides that a police officer does not incur any criminal liability for taking any such police action referenced when responding to the terrorist act, as long as they are acting in good faith.

About Poppy Morandin

Poppy Morandin is the managing law clerk and an integral part of the team of criminal lawyers at Criminal Defence Lawyers Australia . She's also a part of CDLA's content article production team. Poppy is passionate about law reform and criminal justice.

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