'They've never faced an angry man'

I listened to the local radio news as the announcer ran a national wrap-up of overnight incidents from the other side of Bass Strait. The lead news story ran on the fatal shooting of a 15-year-old boy in Melbourne by members of Victoria Police.

Instantly I was drawn back to my involvement in a similar scenario many years ago as a police officer here in my own state. The man involved in my situation walked away, this boy didn't.

It is a very difficult and traumatic situation for the mother and family of the young boy, but also for the police officers amid the public blame-game.

While the loss of any life in these circumstances is tragic, the public comments from 'arm-chair experts', particularly civil libertarians, add to the stress and trauma of all those involved.

Ultimately the use of lethal force is used to protect life, and the national guidelines apply to every police service in the country. Police officers train constantly in how to manage escalating incidents, from using their physical presence through to the use of non-lethal avenues such as capsicum spray or foam and batons.

Suggestions that police should shoot at arms and legs are based on fanciful thinking generated by Hollywood perceptions. Often there is the opportunity for just one shot, and targeting anywhere but the centre of mass (the torso area) could put not only the police officers but also members of the public at risk.

For example, if an officer was charged by a person with a knife, the offender could cover 21 m before the officer drew his weapon and fired. Is there time to aim for the extremities of the body? No, and it is never an option in such a critical moment.

In policing circles, there's an old saying: 'they've never faced an angry man', meaning that very few people outside police understand what it is like to make split-second decisions within such a situation.

My offender had broken into a house and threatened the occupants with a sawn-off shotgun. We arrived at the address to a woman screaming, 'he's got a gun, he's got a gun', pointing up the street in the direction in which he had run.

This was a known criminal with a history of violence, including a warning that he wanted to die in a shoot-out with police. He was located in the pitch dark under a tree nearby, with a big coat over his arm. As we pulled up he eyed the sergeant, who was driving, and began to raise the arm that was covered by the coat.

This is the point of decision, one which later gets dissected in a coroners' court and through the media.

I drew my weapon and aimed at his chest area, and yelled at him to get down on the ground. He ignored me, continuing to eye the sergeant while raising his arm, and possibly the weapon, in the sergeant's direction.

At this point, everything went into slow motion as I began to pull the trigger. I recall being fixated on the hammer of my Smith and Wesson .38 revolver as it came backwards under the trigger pressure.

While I was focused and apparently roaring at him as well, one of the officers from a second unit ran across from the other side, his weapon raised as well. This drew the attention of the offender who suddenly rolled his arm and dropped the coat — he had no weapon!

I've often wondered what would have happened if I had shot him. Yes, my belief, and those of the other officers, was that there was a firearm. His behaviour at the scene, in the dark under a tree, was indicative of a weapon being present and my primary aim was to protect the sergeant who would have been in the line of fire.

Equally, I would have been protected under State law, but what about the knowledge that I had taken a life due to an incorrect belief? It was an issue that haunted me for years.

Amid the tragedy of a death through a police shooting, there's no clear-cut process in the decision of whether to shoot or not. Even if we had capsicum spray all those years ago, I would still have been required to draw my weapon under the national guidelines.

Media speculation is simply that: speculation, which pushes the debate into the court of public opinion without regard for those affected by the tragedy.

Unless one has 'faced the angry man' in this circumstances, no one will never really know the difficulty of making such a potentially fatal decision. Certainly a police shooting has many victims, including the officers themselves.


Phil Pyke served as a police officer with Tasmania Police from 1993–2007. He is now the media consultant to the Archbishop of Hobart.



submit a comment

Existing comments

Armchair ethics remain just that. In so many times of momentous decisions, the situation can only be truly experienced by the individual involved in that particular time and at that particular place. We can provide moral guidelines and education on values, but ultimately individual conscience has sway.

Thank you Phil for sharing your experience with this arm chair ethicist.

Mary-Anne Johnson | 22 December 2008  

Congratulations on both balanced contributions. My police officer nephew was cornered and charged by a drunken man armed with a knife after a lengthy siege. He had no alternative but to discharge his firearm. The man lived. Sadly, the aggressor in such incidents often dies. Equally sadly, if officers cannot successfully defend themselves, wives and children are left grieving.

michael mc entee | 22 December 2008  

Similar Articles

Back on board

  • 13 July 2007


Moving the goalposts in the Hicks case

  • 18 April 2007

Shuman Partoredjo writes in the on the Hicks guilty plea.



Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up