At times over the past two weeks the normally jovial Sydney barrister Geoffrey Watson, SC, has threatened to spontaneously combust.
Day after day, the man charged with assisting the Police Integrity Commission has prodded and probed the police officers involved in the 2009 shooting of the mentally ill Sydney man Adam Salter and the subsequent investigation.
But day after day, much to Watson’s apparent frustration, the officers have stuck to their guns.
Nearly a year after a Deputy State Coroner branded the police investigation following the death of Salter a ”failure” and a ”disgrace”, the officers involved are still doggedly defending their positions, against some strong evidence to the contrary.
Perhaps the most glaring example of this is their insistence that, at the moment the shooting took place, Salter was threatening a junior officer with a bloodied knife.
In his final report, the head of the investigation, Detective Inspector Russell Oxford, said the shooter, Sergeant Sheree Bissett, ”believed Constable [Aaron] Abela was in mortal danger”.
This was based on Bissett’s statements, in which she claims she came into the kitchen to find Salter threatening her colleague with a knife, and that of Abela, who claims he was struggling with Salter as the 36-year-old grabbed the knife out of the sink.
Against this, however, is strong evidence suggesting that, not only was Salter not threatening anyone other than himself, but there was never any direct physical contact between him and Abela.
Perhaps the most compelling part of this evidence is that of the four ambulance officers present at the time of the shooting.
They say that rather than grappling with Salter as he went for the knife in the sink, Abela stood in the corner of the room.
”Did Constable Abela respond to your calls for assistance?” Watson asked paramedic Meagan Coolahan. ”No,” she replied. ”I looked straight at him – he was standing next to the fridge putting his gloves on … he was absolutely no help at all.”
Despite this apparent contradiction between the evidence of the police and the ambulance officers who witnessed the shooting, Oxford wrote in his final report that the two were ”consistent”. His determination to stick to this position this week produced a series of heated exchanges with Watson, which left some in the gallery concerned for the latter’s blood pressure.
Watson: ”Why, if you were being valid and fair, did you not note the conflict?”
Oxford: ”The operational summary sets out what happened – I came to the view that the accounts were consistent.”
Watson: ”Why did you not include a reference to the four eyewitnesses who say something different happened? Was it an error?”
Oxford: ”I just didn’t – that’s my opinion of what happened.”
On Thursday, it was revealed the Assistant Commissioner Paul Carey, who is responsible for overseeing police misconduct issues in NSW, elected not to register a formal complaint against either the police involved in the shooting or those who investigated it.
There was, however, some sign of an acknowledgement that things needed to change.
On Thursday, it also emerged that, at the direction of the NSW Police Commissioner, Andrew Scipione, the office of general counsel of the NSW Police Force set up a ”Lessons Learnt” working party to look at issues stemming from several recent inquests, including the Salter case.
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