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'Plan needed' before fatal police shooting

NZPA | Friday, 3 August 2007
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The two police officers at the scene of the fatal shooting of Waitara man Steven Wallace should have formulated a plan before approaching him, Hamilton District Court Coroner Gordon Matenga said today.

Wallace, after breaking a number of shop windows and brandishing a golf club and a baseball bat, was fatally shot in April 2000 by police in Waitara.

Mr Matenga's inquest findings, seven years after the incident, were delayed due to a murder trial brought against Senior Sergeant Keith Abbott.

Mr Abbott was acquitted of the charge.

The coroner's findings released today detailed the circumstances surrounding Wallace's death, examined police policy in dealing with violent offenders and looked at what first aid care was given to Wallace after the shooting.

On the evening of April 29, 2000, Wallace had driven into the Waitara township after an argument with his sister and father. He had previously been drinking at a local nightclub.

Once back in town, Wallace proceeded to smash a number of shop windows with a golf club.

Mr Abbott arrived at the scene about the same time as Constable Jason Dombroski and Constable Herbert in another police car.

Mr Abbott then saw Wallace smash the windscreen and side window of Mr Dombroski and Ms Herbert's car – at which stage Mr Dombroski asked police communications to tell Mr Abbott to arm himself.

Both officers subsequently retrieved guns from the police station while Ms Herbert observed Wallace.

During this time the officer's commanding officer, Sergeant Fiona Prestidge, had left the command centre in New Plymouth to get to the scene and had ordered a dog team to get to the area.

Mr Dombroski knew the dog team was on its way, but failed to tell Mr Abbott.

Both officers approached Wallace who threw the golf club at Mr Abbott, which missed him. At the time he was threatening to kill Mr Abbott.

While Wallace was closing in on Mr Abbott, Mr Abbott fired a warning shot and then a fatal shot at Wallace. He died in hospital a short time later.

Mr Abbott told the inquest Wallace was in a rage, which increased after the warning shot was fired.

"His rage increased I'd say tenfold. . .I got the impression that he was siding around to me to block off my escape and get in closer."

Mr Matenga also questioned why Mr Abbott and Mr Dombroski did not formulate a plan between each other while they were retrieving guns from the police station.

"The evidence shows clearly that Senior Constable Abbott and Constable Dombroski did not discuss how they would handle the situation.

"There was no discussion as to whether they should approach Steven Wallace, there was no discussion as to how to approach Steven Wallace, there was no discussion as to whether they would simply cordon and contain, or approach and make a voice appeal."

Mr Matenga said he did not accept a submission that the plan was so obvious that it did not need stating.

He criticised Ms Prestidge for not taking a greater leadership role during the incident.

"Sergeant Prestidge could have, and should have in my view, made some enquiries of Constable Dombroski.

"The directive to advise Senior Constable Abbott to draw a firearm should have alerted Sergeant Prestidge to the seriousness of the incident which was unfolding in Waitara."

Mr Matenga said Ms Prestidge should have asked Mr Dombroski if he was sure firearms were needed and what he was planning to do.

"She was still nevertheless the supervising NCO of the police party on duty that night and in my view should have exhibited more leadership and control."

The leadership of Mr Abbott and Mr Dombroski was also criticised by the coroner.

When Mr Abbott arrived on the scene, Mr Dombroski should have deferred to Mr Abbott's more senior rank.

He also said Mr Abbott should have done more to exert his leadership.

He said the leadership or lack thereof shown by the three officers – Mr Abbott, Mr Dombroski and Ms Prestidge – was a performance issue and not a problem with police procedure.

The inquest found that after Wallace was shot it was 10 to 12 minutes before a bandage was placed under a shoulder. It was about 17 minutes before an ambulance arrived.

Professor of Emergency Medicine at Christchurch School of Medicine Professor, Michael Ardagh, told the inquest that Wallace's gun shot wound was fatal.

"I do believe it (first aid or comfort to Wallace) wouldn't have made any difference to survivability but it would have demonstrated compassion."

Mr Matenga said he found no fault in police policy, which was offenders should only be approached when it was safe to do so.

Wallace had been seen trying to continue to approach Mr Abbott after he was shot.

The only recommendation Mr Matenga made in his findings was to clarify police guidelines on when dog teams should be used rather than just how they were to be used.

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