Laval Zimmer was 28 years old when a Queensland police officer shot him through the heart at point blank range. He fell, face down, outside his bedroom door. He groaned “I’m dying” and bled out within seconds. Police used those few seconds to haul Laval’s hands behind his back and cuff them.
Queensland law mandates coronial investigation of any death caused by police. The local newspaper had mentioned that the deceased was mentally ill. As a disability and mental health specialist organization, Queensland Advocacy sought amicus leave to contribute. Our involvement would allow us to make systemic recommendations around police handling of people with mental illness. We have long been aware that the Queensland police have a poor track record: The death of Mr Zimmer represents one of five QPS shootings occurring in a period of just over a year, and every one of the deceased had mental illness.
The shooters (there were two) and three other officers had entered Mr Zimmer’s home, in darkness, at 1 am on 18 October 2014. They had been dispatched to investigate a number of 000 phone calls traced to a mobile at that address. Laval was on his mobile and talking to a ‘Policelink’ operator when he was killed. He had called to make a complaint - about police. He alleged that they had used of excessive force when arresting him just a few hours before.
Laval had been Tasered earlier that day outside a service station at Nundah on Brisbane’s north-side. He was arrested in relation to a minor scuffle with a friend.
During processing at the Redcliffe police station shortly afterwards, Laval revealed that he had been treated for ‘bipolar, chronic epilepsy, and schizophrenia’ and the information was duly entered into QPrime. The five officers later sent to his home had no knowledge of that. According to a statement by his housemate, Stewart, Laval was angry when he returned home from Redcliffe police station. At around midnight, Laval made the first of a number of calls to ‘000’ in an attempt to lodge a complaint.
The 000 call-takers ignored his requests. They bantered with him, teased him, and hung-up on him repeatedly. One of the operators jeered at Laval, accusing him of cowardice. Only one, the last, followed procedure and referred the complainant to Policelink. Laval called them, and his complaint was taken.
It was, however, too late. The 000 communications commander (‘Comco’) had by this time dispatched two QPS officers, joined later by another three, to Laval’s address, with a view to prevent further calls and perhaps to arrest him for improper use of an emergency call service, a Commonwealth offence.
Three of the officers were low-ranking and inexperienced. They were told that Laval was a big man, dangerous, and probably hostile. They knew Laval had been Tasered earlier, and that Laval had seemed immune to the 50000 volts-at-peak. It later transpired that the arresting officers had deployed the weapon incorrectly.
The Comco did not mention mental illness. When the officers entered the house in darkness, Laval was cornered. He produced a knife, and two officers immediately shot him.
At the inquest, Queensland Advocacy Inc (QAI) successfully raised:
- the need for training of 000 call-takers, many of whom demonstrated poor communications skills, and
- the (lack of) mental health awareness and training of police officers.
Final submissions to the Coroner are due later this year. In due course we hope that the Coroner will make recommendations for better police recruitment and training.
Statistics show that police officers deal with people with mental health on a regular basis, and that both parties have a fear of one another. This can lead to pre-emptive escalation of conflict. The QPS must train first response officers to de-escalate. A successful resolution is one where everyone goes home safe.