Sydney: Police underestimated the threat posed by a self-styled Islamic cleric during a Sydney cafe siege and took too long to storm the building, an inquest on Wednesday found, but it absolved them of blame for two deaths.
The findings into the December 2014 tragedy that shocked Australia followed intense scrutiny of New South Wales state police tactics, which have been blasted by families of those who died.
Despite the criticism, coroner Michael Barnes made it clear that Iranian-born Man Haron Monis, a "vicious maniac", was solely responsible for what unfolded at the Lindt cafe in the city's financial hub.
"I cannot stress too heavily that the deaths and injuries that occurred as a result of the siege were not the fault of the police," he said. "All of the blame for those rests on the shoulders of Man Monis. He created the intensely dangerous situation. He maliciously executed Tori Johnson. He barricaded himself into a corner of the cafe and his actions forced police to enter the cafe in circumstances where the risk of hostages being wounded or killed was very high."
Monis, 50, began the siege in the upmarket chocolate cafe early on 15 December, 2014, taking staff and customers hostage for 17 hours while armed with a pump-action shotgun. It ended after he shot dead 34-year-old cafe manager Johnson.
Police stormed the building, killing Monis. Katrina Dawson, a 38-year-old barrister and mother of three, died after being hit by a ricocheting police bullet or fragment. Barnes said the challenge faced by detectives was "greatly increased by the fact that this was the first terrorism-related siege in Australia".
But he said they waited too long to make their move after the first shot was fired by Monis. "The 10 minutes that lapsed without decisive action by police was too long," he said.
Barnes also described an unnamed consultant psychiatrist's role in advising them on tactics "suboptimal". "He made erroneous and unrealistic assessments of what was occurring in the stronghold. He gave ambiguous advice," he said, adding it was partly to blame for how police commanders "underestimated the threat Monis posed".
Barnes urged police to consider expanding the number of psychological advisers they use as consultants, and introduce clear policies for any that are asked to assist in future.
He also recommended that police review the training and accreditation of negotiators. Victims' families have been critical of the tactics used by police, who hoped to "contain and negotiate" with Monis, believing he also had a bomb in his backpack which was later found to be fake. They were incensed when learning that police only planned to move in if a hostage was killed or seriously injured.
"I'll never be able to understand how you can make a calculated decision that you wait for someone to die. It's just beyond me," Rosie Connellan, Johnson's mother, told broadcaster ABC.
NSW police commissioner Mick Fuller conceded that armed officers should have been sent in earlier to rescue the hostages, but insisted that "contain and negotiate" had saved countless lives over the years.
"In hindsight, knowing everything we know now, we should have gone in earlier," he told reporters, adding that police forces globally had learnt valuable lessons from the incident in terms of "contain and negotiate versus early intervention".
Updated Date: May 24, 2017 12:46 PM