‘Did they have to shoot my boy’
The Weekend Australian Magazine
August 8–9, 2009
Tyler Cassidy was only 15 years old, a boy who wanted to play the tough guy but hadn’t started shaving yet. A gangly teenager who was still young enough to tell his mum he loved her every night before bed. A kid who posted dumb things on his MySpace page and had begun to flirt online with some bone-headed racists. Around 9pm on December 11 last year this same boy, brimming with an inexplicable, implacable rage, went careering through a northern Melbourne shopping centre just on closing time.
Brandishing two kitchen knives he’d stolen from Kmart, he terrified the last straggling shoppers and staff. Tyler was freaking out and although he didn’t know it, he only had 40 minutes to live.
For those who haven’t heard of him, Tyler Cassidy holds the awful distinction of being the youngest Australian to be shot dead by police.
His funeral, held a week later, was devastatingly bleak. Angry, bereft kids clung to each other and to their parents, weeping as they filed past their friend’s open white coffin. Shani Cassidy then did something no mother should ever have to do: she helped screw the lid shut on her son.
Any child’s funeral leaves mourners searching for answers; eight months after Tyler’s, the questions are mounting up.
THE DAY TYLER HAD HIS FATAL MELTDOWN began well enough. But it wasn’t the grinning kid who walked out the door that morning to hang out with his new girlfriend and mates who returned that evening. Instead, an angry, dishevelled boy stormed through the house. “He came home very upset, very angry, and went to his room, went on the computer and just yelled, ‘Go away, I’m angry’, when I tried to find out what was going on,” Shani says. “His shirt was ripped and covered in blood and there were marks on his body.” He looked, as one eyewitness later told police, as if he’d been through a war zone. He wouldn’t be contained and his mother had to wrest some knives off him. And then he was gone. “I’m going for a walk, Mum,” he shouted as he flew out the door to meet a friend at the nearby skate park.
Shani is one of those mothers who used to believe that if you were in trouble, you found the nearest policeman. She taught her two sons this golden rule. That’s why she phoned the police for help. She’d had problems with Tyler before with his sudden rages, but nothing came close to this. She remembers exactly what she said to the young constable at the Northcote police station who took her call. “I gave him a very detailed description of Tyler, his age, what he was wearing, the mental state he was in, and my last words to the policeman were, ‘If you see Tyler on your rounds tonight, can you please bring him home safe’.” An hour later, the boy lay dead on a concrete skateboard rarnp. Five police bullets had gone clean through him: two in his right leg, one below his right elbow and the fatal shot through his chest which caused his right lung to fill with blood and very soon after, drown him. A sixth bullet grazed his leg.
In all, 10 shots were fired at Tyler that night, but only one bullet was ever found.
By the time Tyler had left the Northcote Plaza shopping centre, the police had begun receiving emergency calls. Two were from Tyler, who allegedly told police he was planning to kill people. The Northcote police station is just 100 metres from the Plaza and the park where Tyler was heading. According to eyewitness accounts, he threatened a driver with a knife by banging on the windscreen. He also allegedly made threats outside a liquor store on his way to the park. But a passer-by who was there sent a letter to The Age four days after the shooting and presented a different picture: “I cannot comment on Tyler’s behaviour before, when he was in the shopping centre, or after, when he was with the police, but I can remark on our encounter with him minutes before he was shot. He bent and patted our dog. We did not feel threatened. Nervous maybe. We saw an agitated boy who was crying out for some attention. We saw a kid who needed to talk to someone.”
It was over in minutes.
At 9.35pm, four police officers in two divisional vans arrived. They approached Tyler on the outskirts of the All Nations Park and asked him to drop the knives. He turned and ran and they chased him, spraying him twice on the back and side of the head with capsicum foam. Tyler ended up on the top of the skate ramp, staring down at three, maybe four police officers who were about 15 metres away at the bottom of the ramp. Police claim one of them was cornered, and this will be the subject of much investigation at the inquest.
A friend of Tyler’s was the only other person in the park; he had retreated to safety on the edge of the nearby basketball court, but saw the police open fire. It was 9.40pm.
POLICE INSIST THEY WERE FACED with a dangerous, out-of-control teenager who threatened the safety of one of their officers, leaving them no alternative but to shoot. At a press conference the day after Tyler’s death, Assistant Commissioner Tim Cartwright said his four officers two women and two men did everything possible before firing the fatal shots. “They have reacted as we would want them to,” he said. “They’ve tried everything: they’ve tried talking, they’ve tried OC [capsicum] foam, they’ve tried backing off. But they’ve had to protect themselves and members of the public, so ultimately they’ve had no choice.” But The Weekend Australian Magazine understands that there is deep disquiet within senior ranks over the incident. “The whole thing smacks of panic, no meaningful negotiation, just police barking orders at a disturbed kid then getting themselves into a situation very rapidly where they believed they had no option but to reach for their guns,” says one senior officer.
It’s not a new scenario in Victoria. Since 1987, 48 people have been shot dead by police, a figure that is well above that of other Australian states. Only 10 days ago the independent body charged with overseeing Victoria Police, the Office of Police Integrity, issued a devastating critique of Victoria Police’s gun culture. It concluded that the state’s police are not trained properly to handle volatile situations and have a heavy reliance on firearms, with a tendency to “go in hard”.
Deputy Commissioner Kieran Walshe told The Weekend Australian Magazine that Victoria Police accepted that not enough focus had been given to teaching its officers how to de-escalate conflict. But, he said, the force stood by its decision not to introduce Taser stun guns. “It’s our opinion that it is better to teach our members better verbal skills, to create space and time when they get caught in a conflict so that they can get back-up, rather than give them another piece of equipment,” Walshe said. He would not comment on the Tyler Cassidy case.
There was much speculation at the time of his death that Tyler Cassidy wanted to die in what is known as “suicide by cop”. Police said the boy yelled: “Kill me, I’m going to kill you” as they ordered him to put down his weapons. But his mother denies he had a death wish, or that he was still so overwhelmed with grief at losing his father four years earlier that he didn’t care if he lived or died. “Tyler had come through that,” she says. “He was looking forward to our family Christmas party in three days’ time, and the holiday he was about to spend in Queensland with his cousins. He’d been through terrible times, but he’d survived it.” She says Tyler had no coping mechanism to deal with his pain immediately after his father’s death from cancer and later had to be hospitalised. “Grief, anxiety and sudden loss was what the doctors told me at the time. He was just overwhelmed. He lay on his father’s body for three hours after Ian had died, saying, ‘It’s just the medicine Mummy, he’ll wake up’.”
There’s no doubt Tyler was a troubled kid, who battled with anger issues. He was expelled from his high school last year. “He lashed out and kicked a door, the door hit a stool and it fell on the teacher’s shin,” his mother says. “He had only been at his new school, The Island, for a short time before he died, but that’s where he started turning his life around.” Tyler had been hooked up online with some pretty dubious characters in the months before be was killed. Much has been made of his links to the white supremacist group Southern Cross Soldiers, although his family insist he was no neo-Nazi, just an immature teenager dabbling in stuff he didn’t understand. “Tyler had friends from all ethnic backgrounds who were devastated by his death,” his mother says.
Whatever pushed Tyler Cassidy over the edge that day, one thing is certain. It wasn’t drugs. Sources close to the investigation confirm Tyler had been drinking that day – but he had no drugs in his system, contrary to suspicions. (A woman who saw him that night at the shopping centre told the media that the boy must have been on ice. It resonated with the public. Why else would a kid, even one with a shaved head and pierced ears, be waving around knives and screaming ‘Kill me, kill me’ at the local coppers?) For Tyler’s family, this question is crucial.
They want to know what happened earlier that evening to bring him so undone. “The police told me they have footage of him reading the newspaper on the train on his way home after his girlfriend got off a few stops earlier,” Shani says. Tyler got off at Alphington and in the few minutes it took for him to walk to the bus stop something occurred, Shani believes, that set the whole tragic chain of events in motion. “They [police] say it is irrelevant and have refused to investigate it. Something violent happened to him and I want to know what, because it triggered his meltdown,” she says. “Do I have to go and stand down there with a placard with Tyler ’s photo on it and a caravan, appealing for witnesses?”
A NURSE, WHO FOUND HERSELF a single mother to two boys aged 11 and 15 when her husband died, Shani Cassidy is an articulate, determined woman who has handled herself with real dignity since her son’s death. If they haven’t worked it out already, Victoria Police and the Brumby Government should understand that she is not going to allow her son’s death to become a footnote in the state’s inglorious reign as the police shooting capital of Australia. “It’s a bit awkward when a child is killed by the police, isn’t it?” Shani says. Her bitterness is only marginally tempered by a mother’s sorrow. “My son has been put on trial, his character smeared; but the police got the shock of their lives when they met me… and discovered I wasn’t some deadbeat mother with no capacity to fight. What about those officers? Did they have problems at home that night that made them behave in the way they did? Did they have anger management issues? I want to know why I can’t look into the window of their lives that week and see if there isn’t something there that might explain why they killed my son.”
Detectives from the homicide squad are conducting the investigation into Tyler’s death on behalf of the State Coroner, Jennifer Coate.
Shani’s lawyers have petitioned Judge Coate to remove Victoria Police from the investigation and instead ask the Office of Police Integrity (OPI) to take over. “In our submission what cannot be explained away or justified is the fundamental perceived and or actual conflict of interest where Victoria Police officers investigate their fellow officers in relation to fatal police shootings,” the letter to the coroner states. Judge Coate has rejected this submission, as has the OPI. Its director, Michael Strong, says he sees no need for such an intervention as his office will monitor the police investigation and liaise with the coroner prior to the inquest. No date has been set for the inquest but it now seems certain it won’t he held until early next year, as Judge Coate has decided to hold it under the new Victorian Coroners Act, which doesn’t come into effect until November. The homicide squad still hasn’t handed over its brief of evidence, even though it was supposed to be ready in February, then in May. It is understood that more than 100 witness statements have been taken. The family, after initially being told by Victoria Police that they would be “kept in the loop”, have heard nothing for months.
The Cassidys also claim police have treated them with scant respect. They have not been offered counselling or any other support, although Victoria Police has now agreed to pay their funeral expenses. In a bulletin posted on the police website, it was claimed that no offer had been made to the family due to the “sensitivity associated with the incident and an understanding that the family would not wish to be contacted by Victoria Police.” A spokeswoman told The Weekend Australian Magazine that police are now in the process of speaking to the family regarding “what practical support they would like to receive”. The family is still waiting.
THE CALLOUSNESS SHOWN TO THE Cassidys began, they claim, the moment they arrived at All Nations Park. Shani, her elder son, Blake, and her fiance, Greg Taylor, were all out looking for Tyler when a text came from a friend saying an ambulance was heading towards the shopping centre.
A police roadblock had been set up, so they sat under a gum tree for two hours on the other side of the cordon. “I kept asking, ‘What’s going on?’ and the police officers would say, ‘We’re waiting for authorisation; we haven’t got clearance to tell you anything yet’,” says Shani.
Blake tried to break through the cordon but was slammed to the ground and handcuffed. “He was sobbing and shaking and they left him in the dirt for about half an hour like that.” In the distance an ambulance light was flashing, and all the while police kept pouring into the park. “Finally two police officers came and took me alone to an unmarked car,” says Shani. “The policewoman patted me on the back and said, ‘There’s been a shooting and Tyler is now deceased’.” They then broke the news to Greg and Blake. Some time after midnight, the three were taken back to the Preston police station where two of the officers involved in the shooting were based and separately interviewed. They claim they were given no option, nor were they asked if they would like a lawyer or friend present while they made their statements.
“The shock of Tyler dying, the fact the police had killed him; we’d have liked some time to absorb what had happened. I’d never been in a police station before in my life. We didn’t know our rights,” Shani says. “I wish we could have been given the chance to just go home and be together, take in what had happened and come back the next day.” It is worth noting that according to Victoria Police protocols, officers who are involved in a police shooting are afforded a number of basic rights immediately following the event. These include access to a police psychologist, legal representation, contact with family and having a friend present at the interview. They are then taken home and follow-up assistance is offered.
Shani, Greg and Blake drove themselves home in the early hours of the morning after giving statements that they now know were made while they were numb with shock. A police car followed them. The purpose was not to see them home safely but to seize evidence.
An autopsy was performed on Tyler’s body the next morning. An hour before, Shani was finally allowed to see her youngest son, although only through a window. She found out 13 weeks later, when she received a copy of the pathologist’s report, that his body had lain (“like a piece of meat,” she says) on the concrete skate ramp from 9.40pm until the pathologist officially declared him dead at 4.15am the next day. “I was horrified. I had wanted to get a priest to him that night, I’d wanted to see him, but I wasn’t allowed. I just wanted to give him a cuddle, but then to discover your baby has been left there in the dark and cold, while I was at home, well, it was just cruel and inhumane.”
In February, Shani Cassidy wrote a letter of complaint to the OPI about her family’s treatment at the hands of Victoria Police, both on the night her son died and in the months that followed. Six weeks ago she finally got a response: “…the result of the inquiries conducted has been recorded at this office as Not Resolved,” says the letter from John Ashby in the Professional Standards Assurance Unit.
It concludes by saying that Victoria Police had advised that no further action would be taken.
The OPI also has decided to close the file.
There is, however, an oblique reference towards the end of the letter that recommendations have been made by the officer who conducted the inquiry “in respect to circumstances where family liaison, support and communication are required”. So maybe Shani Cassidy has achieved something for the next family of a police-shooting victim after all.
They just won’t tell her what.
YOUR article (“Did they have to shoot my boy”, The Weekend Australian Magazine, 8-9/8) raises important issues but the final two paragraphs may create a wrong impression. The reference to the closure of an Office of Police Integrity file is not the file that directly relates to the shooting of Tyler Cassidy. It relates to certain surrounding events.
As your news article reported, the OPI is actively monitoring the investigation of Tyler’s death and is in a position to assist the Coroner if there are particular matters of concern. The police investigation, when completed, will be fully reviewed by the OPI.
Director, Office of Police Integrity Victoria