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Saturday, 04 Aug 2007

Police criticised over fatal shooting

EMILY WATT and REBECCA PALMER - The Dominion Post | Saturday, 4 August 2007
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Steven Wallace's family say a coroner's criticism of police involved in his fatal shooting must mean no one else should ever be shot by officers.

Seven years after the shooting that sparked national debate, Hamilton coroner Gordon Matenga has criticised poor communication and a lack of police leadership during the incident in the early hours of April 30, 2000.

A spokesman for the Wallace family said last night: "The current report has highlighted a lot of issues that the trial didn't necessarily highlight. Hopefully ... the New Zealand police service is going to look at those issues. There shouldn't be another tragedy like this."

The family's lawyer, Ron Mansfield, said he was pleased with the findings. "There was no plan or procedure as to how the officers concerned at the scene would approach the incident. I'm firmly of the view that those two failings led to the poor decision-making."

The officers should have cordoned and contained or waited for back-up, which was on its way. "There seemed to be a bit of a gung-ho approach, which led to a firearm being in an officer's hand and he effectively having no other option."

Mr Wallace, 23, had been using a softball bat and a golf club to smash windows of Waitara shops when Senior Constable Keith Abbott and Constable Jason Dombroski arrived at the scene. They went to Waitara police station and armed themselves after Mr Wallace attacked a patrol car.

Mr Wallace died after Mr Abbott shot him twice with "double taps" - in effect four shots - believing himself in "grave danger", Mr Matenga said.

Mr Dombroski did not seek permission from the supervisor that night - Sergeant Fiona Prestidge - before asking a communications dispatcher to tell Mr Abbott to draw a firearm - not in keeping with police instruction.

Ms Prestidge, now the New Plymouth area commander, would have been aware that the constables were arming themselves and should have exercised more leadership and control. "The directive to advise Senior Constable Abbott to draw a firearm should have alerted Sergeant Prestidge to the seriousness of the incident."

Mr Matenga said the two constables "did not take the time to discuss their observations, their aim or their plan" after arming themselves. However, both wanted to protect the public, and Mr Wallace was "bent on mayhem".

Mr Matenga found police policy was adequate in most instances and performance was to blame. "Each of the three police officers I have mentioned showed on this night a lack of leadership."

His sole recommendation was that police review dog deployment guidelines to make it clearer when a dog team should be called out. A dog unit was on its way when Mr Wallace was shot.

Police Commissioner Harry Broad said he was unsurprised by the coroner's findings and had no intention of taking any action against any of the officers involved. "I have nothing but praise for all the officers involved in responding to the challenge by Stephen Wallace on that tragic night seven years ago."

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