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14.12.2015 | Sonderheft 1/2016

Journal of Urban Health 1/2016

Beacon of Hope? Lessons Learned from Efforts to Reduce Civilian Deaths from Police Shootings in an Australian State

Journal of Urban Health > Sonderheft 1/2016
Jessica Saligari, Richard Evans


In the 1990s, the police service in Victoria, Australia, faced a crisis of community confidence due to a spate of civilian deaths from police shootings. In that decade, twice as many civilians died at the hands of the police in Victoria than in every other Australian state combined. Most of those killed were mentally ill and affected by drugs and alcohol, and were rarely a serious threat except to themselves. The problem was also almost entirely an urban phenomenon. Shootings in rural communities, where mentally ill people were more likely to be personally known to local police, were (and remain) almost unknown. The large number of fatalities was recognised as a serious threat to public confidence, and Victoria Police introduced a ground-breaking training programme, Operation Beacon. Operating procedures and weapons training were fundamentally changed, to focus on de-escalation of conflict and avoiding or minimising police use of force. In the short term, Operation Beacon was successful. Shooting incidents were dramatically reduced. However, during the first decade of the new century, the number of civilians being killed again increased. This article examines Operation Beacon, both as a successful model for reducing civilian deaths at the hand of police and as a cautionary tale for police reform. We argue that the lessons of Operation Beacon have been gradually forgotten and that old habits and attitudes resurfaced. Fatal shootings of mentally ill civilians can be prevented, but if success is to be other than temporary, the Beacon philosophy must be continually reemphasised by police management.

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