Contributed from Victoria
The Bourke Street killings at the hands of Demetrious Gargasoulas makes no sense to the rest of us. As the dust settles and the truth comes out, it becomes clear that there needs to be some thinking about how Australia deals with the problem of mental health.
We must all recognise that the tragedy put a violent end to some meaningful lives, injured others and brought suffering to a wider range of people. They deserve our compassion and assistance, wherever it can be given. Melbourne’s, Victoria’s and Australia’s heart goes out to them.
But in no way, should this be used as justification for lining up for the lynch mob brigade. Australia must to be better than this. unfortunately, there are those who would do otherwise.
Some voices have judged Gargasoulas’ act as a failure of the justice system. They call for more law and order and the denial of bail for a wide range of people who might come under police charges. It is way off the mark. There is no evidence that tougher policing will do much to counter cases like this. What it will do is threaten the liberties of the rest of us.
The accused had been moving into an increasingly psychotic state. His behaviour had become increasingly erratic. The police knew this. As did everyone else who had been in contact with the man. Nothing was done to link him up to appropriate services that could help. They had nowhere to turn.
Mental health services have been gutted in Australia. It happened in the 1980’s and 90’s under the guise of integration policy. The argument made then was that those with metal health issues should be integrated into society and live the same lives and have the same opportunities as the rest of us. While there is certainly value in connecting people to society, rather than isolating them, this can only be properly achieved, when it is backed up by services that ensure people can cope with the demands of life.
This was not done. Integration became the smokescreen for government defunding of services. Instead of integrating these people into society, they have been swept under the carpet and ignored. Thousands have been left to fend for themselves, with nowhere to turn to in times of crisis. Is it any wonder that occasionally, someone will kill while under the influence of a mental health episode?
Resort to tougher policing will have no effect at all. Only the existence of relevant services capable of a quick response can make a difference.
Many thousands of individuals who once would have received help have been left alone in the streets. They are not coping and nothing is being done about it. It is not surprising that one or two Demetrious Gargasoulas’ turn up. Having spent years working in this field myself, I am too well aware of the damage that has been done.
If we seriously want to minimize the risk more Bourke Street type acts, we need to ensure that appropriate services are in place and there must be an appropriate response. If these conditions had been on this occasion, police would have had the means to intervene, connect Gargasoulas to the appropriate help.
Blaming the police for not acting is pointless. Do we want gun-toting hit squads taking out people, merely on suspicion that they might do something wrong? The police have also been attacked for calling off the police chase. Imagine how many more people could have been killed by high-speed cars flying through the city center. Car chases look spectacular on the silver screen. In real life they are killers. Sometimes prudence suggests that they should be called off for safety reasons. This is the reason why there is a call off policy and why the police did the right thing. New policing technology, such as a jotto desk, police are now able to plan car chases much more effectively. By being able to use databases on laptops in police vehicles, it means that police will be able to better track these cars, without having to drive around dangerously. They should have a much better view of where the car they’re chasing is headed.
The greatest fire has been aimed at bail system. There have been calls to have it changed so that it is almost impossible to not be remanded if facing criminal charges. Once we said that every individual must be presumed innocent until proven guilty. The existence of bail is bound up with this. Are we going to let go of this principle? If we do, we will all pay the price.
This may not be completely fool proof. But the jackboot approach will do nothing, only diminish the rights of all citizens. The naive will suggest that if you have done nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear. The weakness of this line of thinking is that the jack boot may not discriminate in this way and innocence may not offer any protection.
The call for tougher policing is not based so much on reliance on evidence, but reliance on hearsay, gossip and prejudice.
For their part, the police chiefs and the police union have acted wrongly in using the tragedy to push their own agenda for more resources for the government and to reduce the granting of bail as much as possible, for it plays into the hands of those who would have our rights curtailed.
The answer is for all of us to demand that our government provides the resources necessary to deal with mental health problems in our society and this should include the capacity to deal quickly, and when needed, with any episode that might put the individual and others at risk.