The hard life and death of Tyler the Sorrowful

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Tyler CassidyTyler Cassidy was 15 and 'very upset' when he was shot dead by police near a skate park in Fairfield, Melbourne, early one evening in 2008.

Evidence about that night is being led, day by anguishing day, to a Melbourne inquest, in an investigation sought by his mother because she can't believe that her bereaved little boy died by gunshot. Champions of independent investigations into police killings have welcomed the inquest.

Nothing in what I write is meant to influence the coroner's findings. That ancient office is meant to quiet public concerns about the circumstances of a sudden or violent death or disaster. But a coronial inquest is not a court proceeding. A coroner establishes the facts. She can't give grieving families what they crave when a member dies violently, or suspiciously, unnecessarily, too young, or too cruelly: a finding of guilt.

There's no such thing as closure for such a wound, though over time it folds like the wake behind a ship. Those who sailed away have gone. Those who are left, remain. Grief has to be brought within bounds.

Knowing what happened, helps. It also helps to ask just how we expect our guardians of public order to balance the community need to feel safe with the protection of the vulnerable; especially when the person who is 'the problem' is both a victim and a perpetrator.

So far, the inquest has been told that an adolescent who hadn't been able to fit in at school or with his peer group, wasn't perceived as a child in trouble by the armed police sent to deal with him. They weren't to know how wounded he had been by his father's death when he was 11. There was not enough time to ask what had tipped him into this public state of disconnection from friends, family and neighbourhood.

Like many adolescents, Cassidy might have been trying on roles that day; learning how to manage his 'moods' — 'worst ever', he texted to a friend that morning — and his need for his pain to be acknowledged. Like most adolescents, his state of mind fluctuated. A couple of women who saw him shot talked with him shortly before the confrontation, recalling that he patted their dog and chatted cheerfully.

Teenage years are hell for many of us, as hormones rage, autonomy beckons but our undeveloped frontal lobes fail to allow us to predict the consequences of our actions. That is why the law and society have special rules requiring special responses to and understanding of children's histrionics and mistakes. Children will develop, learn, and become responsible adults. If they live.

Adolescents 'know' they are wise enough to be free from constraints, because they will live forever. Adolescents are impulsive and inexperienced and readily feel that they may, by a dramatic act, somehow ennoble or vindicate their world view.

This is nothing new. In 19th century Europe German poets wallowed in the 'Sorrows of Young Werther', and the romantic deaths of young poets such as Keats, Byron and the suicide, Chatterton. Drama, despair and romance: no wonder 'vampires' — the undying ever-young — are such juicy fiction even now.

Tyler was a very upset, masked child on the day he died: drinking, when his brain was probably too malleable and scantily wired to handle intoxicants; socialising, when that group of young people he wanted to be his 'family' were not as accepting of Tyler the Sorrowful as he needed them to be. Needing, in one counselling session, to have his pain recognised, and hoping, in the next, to be 'normal'.

What he presented to the police was a boy who sounded like a man, playing 'dare' with a deadly weapon, as Palestinian kids throw rocks at Israeli soldiers. Young officers do what they feel, in that moment, they must. The game becomes deadly.

Fifteen years ago I wrote an article for Eureka Street called 'The short life and hard times of Colleen', about the death of an upset, intoxicated young Aboriginal woman with a mental illness who was shouting and chopping at a garden bench in a St Kilda public park with a blunt tomahawk, and was shot by police. I think there was an inquest then, too, and police were supportive of psychiatric emergency teams who are more specifically trained to manage disturbed behaviour of sick people with mental illnesses.

But any parent will know that confronting an enraged teenage boy about his behaviour and advancing on him with threats is not likely to result in submission. People who feel humiliated can't back down.

Tragedies occur, and rarely is anybody clearly to blame. Perhaps police investigations into deaths caused by police should be more than a review of the paper record. Perhaps not only every death in custody but also those that occur in the course of police intervention should be independently reviewed by coroners.

But  no finding will ever satisfy a mother whose child died violently, alone. Her pain just gets familiar. 


Moira RaynerMoira Rayner is a barrister and writer. She is a former Equal Opportunity and HREOC Commissioner. She is principal of Moira Rayner and Associates. 

Topic tags: Moira Rayner, Tyler Cassidy, coronial inquest, police shooting

 

 

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Well said. A beautiful article on the death of this lad. Thank you.
Vivienne | 27 October 2010


It is a shame how the death of this boy occurred. But there are approximately 300 babies who will be slaughtered today who are never written about.

Abortion is plain murder legislated by a society who puts Man first and denies God.

How about some articles from this Catholic publication detailing the horrors of this daily slaughter of our most defenceless and innocent children.
Trent | 27 October 2010


The bus driver said Tyler was agitated.

That is the 'excuse' police used for not allowing me to make a statement after I was falsely accused and arrested and transported in a cage to be incarcerated for 24 hours ... the police are intent on dealing out punishment before guilt or otherwise is proven ...
Greig Williams | 27 October 2010


Thank you, Moira. My heart goes out to Tyler's mother and family. This article will be more directed to the police and their haste in dealing with young offenders. The big bullies just didn't give that little guy a chance that evening! Will we ever see a police force with an ounce of compassion for anyone ever again? All I can say is that Tyler's happy with his Dad now in a much safer place. Rest in Peace.
Murray J Greene | 27 October 2010


Moira congratulations on a powerful, sensitive, but tellingly eductive piece. A copy should be sent to every serving Police officer. This article must be included in all police training courses.
jack callaghan | 27 October 2010


As a parent of a teenage boy on the autism spectrum a situation like this is one of my greatest fears. Many disabilities, illnesses and trauma are invisible. My own experience has taught me that yelling never calms a situation, my best tactic is to speak quietly, so he calms down while attempting to listen. I recently came across research that suggested police officers holding a degree prior to joining the force are less likely to resort to violence as their first option. Rigorous training and recruitment (better pay?) and political will could be the answer.
Michal | 27 October 2010


Add to this tragic story the video footage coming out of WA of police with a tazer, there is reason for concern about policing.
Kevin Thompson | 27 October 2010


Good on you Moira.

I think that police need to learn and recite the mantra, 'back off', 'back up'.

I visited the site where Tyler was shot dead, in my humble opinion, the police had ample opportunity to to choose another course of action. I can't imagine what Tyler's Mum Shani is going through.
annie nash | 01 November 2010


There are profound issues with the insight (degree of or lack of) of police when facing psychologically distressed people full stop. Yet it seems to me (I've attended some of the hearing) that the police have no reluctance to use psychological strategies in the witness statements they prepared to make the lad seem more dangerous to others than he probably was... Where is the integrity in this?
silentwatcher | 03 November 2010


There are profound issues with the insight (degree of or lack of) of police when facing psychologically distressed people full stop. Yet it seems to me (I've attended some of the hearing) that the police have no reluctance to use psychological strategies in the witness statements they prepared to make the lad seem more dangerous to others than he probably was... Where is the integrity in this?
silentwatcher | 03 November 2010


If ever any of the armchair experts here ever have to face someone wielding a knife or brandishing a gun, I wonder if they will see things differently.

There seems to be a perception amongst the posters here that the police are robots, void of any human emotions. They just arrive at a scene and mow down the true victim in cold blood. Pack up, and move on.

As a former policeman I can say that none of my colleagues ever looked to lethal force as a first option.

I have never met an officer who had to shoot an offender. However, from interviews I have seen and read, officers are often gravely traumatised

Contrary to the opinions of many here, the police do have feelings. They are like most of the public from which they are recruited. The sweeping generalisations of the posters here do all a disservice.
Patrick James | 04 November 2010


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