Coronial Inquest to be Held Into Fatal Police Shooting of Mentally Ill Man

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A Go Fund Me campaign has been quietly doing the rounds on social media in recent weeks to help the family of Todd McKenzie  raise funds for the National Justice Project and a Barrister to represent them at the inquest into Todd’s death.

40-year old Todd McKenzie was fatally shot by police in 2019 while he was having a psychotic episode. He was alone and armed with a knife when Police forced their way into his home before shooting him dead.

At the time, statistics released showed that around half of the fatalities during police operations over the past 20 years have involved people with mental health issues.

Why did police shoot Todd McKenzie?

Todd McKenzie was schizophrenic. He was open about the fact that he needed to take medication. Those who knew him, as a neighbour as an acquaintance and as a friend, say he was a talented artist and musician, a good neighbour, generally a calm and quiet man.

No one knows why he snapped on 31 July 2019, which led to police intervention. Eighteen months on, his family are still desperately seeking answers, particularly to the question, why, if he was alone, locked in, and only a potential danger to himself, did he end up dead at the hands of police inside his own home?

Police say they had negotiated with Todd for several hours. They also say that they used non-lethal tactics such as tasers, which were ineffective. But details including the circumstances that led to Todd’s shooting are still not entirely clear. Witnesses say they heard several gunshots before Todd was brought out of the house on a stretcher.

While the upcoming inquest will provide clarity and recommendations, what has emerged from the tragic death of Todd McKenzie is a desperate need for police officers to be better trained and equipped at handling situations involving people who have a mental illness and are experiencing a crisis.

Incidents relating to mental health are on the rise

In 2019 alone, NSW Police attended 55,000 mental health incidents.

That figure is expected to increase after the devastating impact of the Australian bushfires, recent floods, and the Covid-19 pandemic which have left many people, particularly those in regional and rural areas, in dire financial circumstances, without jobs and with uncertain futures.

Last year, the PACER model was rolled out in 10 police stations across Sydney and the Central Coast in a trial programme to deal with the increasing demand on police officers.

PACER stands for: Police Ambulance and Clinical Early Response. It teams mental health experts with first responders to assess and respond to mental health emergencies live at the scene. Having mental health professionals on hand should mean that police feel less likely to ‘pull the trigger’ in situations where someone is having a mental health episode.

Todd’s case is one of several over the past few years that have highlighted the need for better police training in the area of mental health. Sydney woman Courtney Topic was fatally shot by police as she was brandishing a kitchen knife and sipping a drink outside a fast food restaurant. It later transpired that she suffered from Asperger’s syndrome and was experiencing a meltdown.

The cases of Adam Salter and Roni Levi

Another incident involved mentally-ill man Adam Salter, who was shot to death at his father’s home despite the coroner finding that he posed no threat to anyone. Charges including perjury and giving false evidence were brought against four police officers in that case – including senior officers – for attempting to cover up the incident.

In yet another case, French photographer Roni Levi was shot dead on Bondi Beach while holding a knife and threatening to kill himself.

While increased police training and expansion of the PACER programme to all police area commands across the state are obvious solutions, the other issue that needs to be addressed is the long wait times that families endure, hoping for answers.

Internal inquiry

Todd was shot in July 2019. At the time an internal police inquiry was launched, but the family has received very little information. There is a need for law reform in this area so that families’ questions can be answered more promptly, allowing them the opportunity for closure, and to assess their own legal options or avenues for complaint if they believe there has been wrongdoing on behalf of law enforcement officers.

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Sonia Hickey

Sonia Hickey is a freelance writer, magazine journalist, and owner of 'Woman with Words'. She has a strong interest in social justice and is a member of the Sydney Criminal Lawyers® content team. Sonia is the winner of the Mondaq Thought Leadership Awards, Spring 2022.

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