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The NSW Law Enforcement Conduct Commission five-yearly report into critical incident investigations shows 12% involved First Nations people. Photograph: Dean Lewins/AAP
The NSW Law Enforcement Conduct Commission five-yearly report into critical incident investigations shows 12% involved First Nations people. Photograph: Dean Lewins/AAP

Mental health crises linked to almost half of all deaths or serious injuries in NSW police operations

Law Enforcement Conduct Commission reveals details of 157 ‘critical incident’ investigations

Almost half the people involved in critical incidents with New South Wales police over the past five years were experiencing a mental health crisis, while the number of Indigenous people killed and seriously injured doubled last financial year, according to a new report.

The NSW Law Enforcement Conduct Commission’s (LECC’s) five-yearly report into “critical incidents” included seven recommendations including an urgent call for better mental health training for officers. A critical incident is a police operation that results in a death or serious injury.

The report was released on Monday evening amid fierce community and political conversation about the use of force by police after a 95-year-old woman with dementia was tasered by officers in a Cooma nursing home last week.

The commission looked at incidents from mid-2017 to mid-2022, of which 12% involved First Nations people. Thirteen Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people died, while six were seriously injured.

Between 1 July 2021 and 30 June 2022, six Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people died, while two were seriously injured. That represented at least double the numbers for each of the four years prior.

The report also warns of significant delays to internal investigations of critical incidents. The delays are caused by police practice to wait for the conclusion of criminal or coronial court proceedings before commencing critical incident investigations.

“This process can take years,” the report said. “The chance to swiftly improve policies and practices is being missed.”

On average, the internal investigations examined by the LECC took 20 months to be finalised. Only 52 of the 157 investigations examined in the report have been finalised, despite some stretching back to 2017.

The report recommends setting up a system of interim reporting on critical incidents, so that changes are identified and implemented in “a timely manner”.

It also made note of the substantial proportion of people who die or are seriously injured in critical incidents who are experiencing a mental health episode.

The commission found almost half of the 157 critical incident declarations made over the past five years related to people in crisis, and noted that while more should be done to train officers in mental health responses, it was not a new issue.

“The adequacy of the training provided to police officers, to respond to incidents involving a person experiencing a mental health crisis (‘mental health training’), has been an issue for the NSWPF, long before the commission commenced monitoring critical incident investigations.” the report said.

“Important coronial recommendations have been made in this regard.”

The LECC also found that police were not dealing with police misconduct until after criminal or coronial proceedings were finished.

“This leads to a risk that misconduct may continue or reoccur,” the report found.

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The LECC’s chief commissioner, Peter Johnson, called for police not to delay implementing changes to policies shown to be problematic until the end of legal processes.

“Changes to such practices should not be put on hold until the end of coronial or criminal proceedings,” he said.

The report also raised concerns about the way NSW police was handling alleged misconduct by officers in connection with critical incidents. It found that since mid-2017, about 16% of the 157 critical incidents were associated with one or more allegations of misconduct.

About 16 misconduct allegations have so far resulted in sustained findings being made against police officers.

But the commission warned that misconduct investigations were being dealt with separately to investigations into critical incidents, meaning delays, unnecessary duplication, and findings that “are not always congruent with findings that may have been warranted on the basis of all available evidence”.

It warned the delays in investigating misconduct meant “any management action may be significantly delayed and will not mitigate risks of similar misconduct occurring in the interim”.

“The delay may also affect the fairness of taking management action and therefore the type of management action that is taken,” the report said. “Indeed, given the passage of time, it may be too late to take management action.”

The commission will monitor the implementation of its recommendations.

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