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Lindt siege report could change the way our cops work

By John Coyne

While the Lindt siege inquest report is set to be handed down on Wednesday, our top cops are agonising over its likely implications for their policies and practices on the use of deadly force.

For well over 25 years the textbook response to sieges has been to cordon and contain the incident site. These tactics are all about employing measured and delayed responses.

The theory is simple: offenders are rational actors who aren't interested in killing as an end in itself. Faced with overwhelming police presence, offenders will eventually negotiate.

This tactic has saved many lives all over the world. It's reduced the number of incidents where offenders have sought to commit suicide by forcing police to use deadly force.

But Paris's Bataclan Theatre and Louvre terror attacks have shown that at times cordon and contain tactics will contribute to increased casualties.

So it won't be surprising if the Lindt Café inquest report is critical of the police cordon and contain tactics.

The Nice and Bourke Street type attacks have further complicated the problem of responding to mass causality incidents. These incidents have shown us that you don't need guns or bombs to achieve mass casualties. Cars and trucks will suffice.

The emerging response model in France and the US for incidents where there's offenders actively murdering, or threatening to murder, victims involves what's referred to as active shooter tactics.

An officer who uses this tactic will focus their efforts on immediate actions that will stop a shooter, stabber or driver and in the process reduce the number of deaths and injuries. Put bluntly they'll shoot offenders as quickly as possible to secure the incident site.

Very soon, it's likely Australia's police could be expected to decide, within seconds, whether an alleged offender is a terrorist, or perhaps a mental health patient, and if their intent is to cause mass casualties, commit suicide by inviting being shot by police or just cause a scene.

With little information, and no time to spare, our mostly young police would now need to decide whether they should protect life by shooting, or retreat to cordon and contain the situation.

It's important to remember our cops aren't soldiers. Their normal focus is on protecting and preserving life, including their own, not taking it.

These new tactics would increasingly expose our cops to deadly threats and the need to take lives. With this model comes a number of unintended consequences, including an increased possibility of accidentally injuring bystanders.

These decisions would impact upon the offender, the community and the officer's own life and career long after the incident is resolved.

To be prepared, our police would need far more advanced firearm training. This training would need to focus on a wide range of threat scenarios including stopping cars or trucks.

The real challenge would not be in training police in marksmanship. It would be in preparing them to make the split-second decisions to employ deadly force under less than ideal conditions.

Police leaders would also need to develop the support frameworks for their officers to live with their decisions, whether they were right or wrong.

It's likely that under these kinds of conditions there would be mistakes. We can't expect the military to save the day either. It might, for example, take half a day or more to get the right units with equipment to Adelaide. But it's all over in 40 minutes. So it'll be a 10-year sergeant and a 10-week rookie with pistols and bulletproof vests. There's very limited public understanding of the heavy burden carried by our police.

Regardless of the Lindt inquest report's findings, police decision-making on the use of deadly force to protect life is going to get a lot more complex. It will be our front-line police who will carry this burden.

Dr John Coyne is head of border security at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. He was formerly the co-ordinator for strategic intelligence with the Australian Federal Police.

Originally published: Sydney Morning Herald.  21 May 2017