Judy Deacon didn’t shut herself away after her son, Jesse, was shot and killed by New South Wales police two months ago.
Instead, the 79-year-old harnessed her anger. She started lobbying politicians, health professionals and the force itself.
Police officers should not be involved in most mental health call-outs, Deacon told anyone who would listen. And if they were, they needed to be better trained.
Deacon thinks police officers shouldn’t carry guns but understands they likely will. In that case, she says, weapons should only go to members after they’ve been in the force for “a number of years” and have a proven track record.
“I don’t think the reality that he [Jesse] is dead will sink in for me until I see things changed,” Deacon told Guardian Australia this week after the fourth fatal interaction between NSW police and a vulnerable person in as many months.
When Deacon heard last week that a woman had died in Newcastle after being Tasered and shot with bean bag rounds, her first thought was: “This is endless.” She decided it was time to share Jesse’s story.
“I’ve been trying to get in touch with people because it’s not my fight, it is everyone’s fight, and everyone has to work together so this doesn’t happen again.”
‘He was struggling, but on the way up’
In July, Jesse Deacon, 42, was shot dead by police in his Glebe home on the Franklyn Street public housing estate.
In the hours before his death, Jesse had gone to his neighbour’s house to ask for a cigarette. They saw his arm was dripping with blood and called triple zero to report that Jesse was self-harming, his mother says.
When police arrived, they entered the home and found Jesse holding a knife. One officer tried to use a Taser but it failed, so another officer fired his gun.
Deacon says Jesse was shy and expressed himself through music. He struggled with his mental health for most of his life. In high school, he was diagnosed with affective psychosis, which leads to hallucinations and delusions.
“We made sure he had every support available to him,” his mother says. “He appeared normal – but he was struggling with a lot of demons.
“When you’ve been mentally ill for decades it takes a while to climb out.”
Jesse drifted from living in rental accommodation, boarding houses and sometimes with family. Often, he self-medicated with drugs and was in and out of hospitals. Recently, he was in hospital on remand after he hit someone while experiencing a psychotic episode, Deacon says.
But he had been given a home at Franklyn Street after almost six years on the public housing waiting list and was discharged from hospital on the proviso he took anti-psychotic medication fortnightly.
“He seemed like he was on the way up,” Judy says. He was visited twice a week by support staff funded via the NDIS. “He’d stopped taking methadone, he’d cut his hair, he was smartening up.”
When she got a phone call telling her to attend a police station, Deacon thought she would be told Jesse had been hospitalised again.
“On my way, his father rang me crying, and I knew straight away he was dead,” she says. “But it never entered my head it was a police matter.”
‘Police training can escalate a situation’
The chief executive of mental health advocacy organisation Being, Priscilla Brice, says when police attend mental health call-outs they assess and deal with any risks before calling in a mental health clinician. This isn’t the right response, she argues.
“It blows my mind they aren’t part of the initial response,” Brice says, adding specialists should be on the scene from the start.
The NSW police acting commissioner, David Hudson, agrees to a certain extent. On Tuesday, he revealed bean bag rounds fired at Krista Kach during the siege in Newcastle last week penetrated her chest and hit her heart, killing the 47-year-old.
During the same press conference, he said NSW police were deployed to 64,000 mental health incidents last year and “to be perfectly honest many of those incidents we probably should not have been deployed to”.
“Showing up in uniform, showing up with police training, can escalate a situation rather than deescalate it, and we would suggest that perhaps [mental health] clinicians are better placed to resolve some of these incidents.”
A NSW parliamentary inquiry is examining how and if police should respond to mental health emergencies.
The Greens MP Amanda Cohn, who is chairing the inquiry, has said NSW would not need to reinvent the wheel to come up with alternatives, pointing to the ACT model whereby a paramedic, mental health clinician and police officer respond together in an unmarked vehicle.
According to Greens MP Sue Higginson, Kach’s daughter believed if she had been able to talk to her mother without the “heavily weaponised riot squad” she likely could have de-escalated the situation.
Kach’s family said in a statement on Monday: “We told the police in no uncertain terms that she was not well that day and she needed medical help.”
They say NSW police assured them before the shooting incident that they would look after their mother and that she would be cared for by “qualified medical professionals”.
A report released in May by the Law Enforcement Conduct Commission found almost half the people involved in NSW police operations that resulted in death or serious injury were experiencing a mental health crisis. Among the report’s seven recommendations was an urgent call for better mental health training for officers.
On Wednesday, NSW police announced it was accepting that recommendation and would update its mental health training for officers.
Deacon says Kach’s death “is a tragedy for the victim and their family”.
“But [the police] are also not doing their own people a favour by not giving them the necessary support to handle these situations.”
In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. Other international suicide helplines can be found at befrienders.org