The shooting of a mentally ill university student by police followed directly from a “rash and unconsidered” decision by an officer to chase the young man which began a “cascading of disaster”, the coroner’s court has heard.
Elijah Holcombe, 24, died after being shot once in the chest by Senior Constable Andrew Rich in an Armidale laneway on June 2, 2009.
A coronial inquest into Mr Holcombe’ death has heard that the young man was suffering from a mental health breakdown characterised by episodes of paranoia and delusions when Senior Constable Rich and Senior Constable Greg Dufty were asked to find the car the young man had taken from his father. They had also been asked by a nurse to return him to Armidale hospital.
When the plainclothes police officers found and approached Mr Holcombe, he allegedly grabbed a bread knife from a cafe and ran into a laneway. The officer allegedly told Mr Holcombe to drop the knife and then fired a single, fatal shot.
Constable Rich said at the time he was acting in self-defence.
However, in his closing submissions to the inquest on Tuesday, counsel assisting the inquest, Jeremy Gormly, SC, said that root of the problem occurred not on Cinders Lane where the fatal shot was fired but some minutes earlier when Senior Constable Rich decided to chase Mr Holcombe.
Mr Gormly rejected the officer’s claims that he believed the young man needed to be forcibly taken to the mental health hospital, describing the decision to chase the young man as a “rash and unconsidered act without basis”.
“It started because Elijah was being wrongly and improperly chased by a police officer without a sufficient basis to do so,” Mr Gormly said.
“From that point there was just a cascading of disaster.
“One could hardly be surprised that in this [mentally disturbed] state Elijah was going to pick up a knife when he was being chased. At no time was there any justification for putting this man in such fear..’’
He said the officer should have rung the police station where other officers could have given him more information about Mr Holcombe’s condition and his known fear of police.
Constable Rich had told the hearing that Elijah looked nervous or anxious when confronted, and that he had then run onto the road in front of moving traffic.
But Mr Gormley said the idea “that someone would be taken in for scheduling [in hospital] because of their demeanor was a nonsense”, and that the traffic claim was an “after the fact reconstruction to justify his actions”.
Mr Gormley said that at a time when he should have been attempting to de-escalate the situation by backing away, Senior Constable Rich “issued orders and drew his weapon”.
“It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that a lot of what happened that day was a lack of knowledge and training about people with mental illness, but there was also a degree to which he acted on his own without obtaining sufficient information.
The hearing continues.