The True Story of the Lindt Cafe
In the early hours of December 15, fourteen serving NSW Police officers called their loved ones and said their goodbyes. They were preparing to storm the Lindt café where a mentally ill criminal, Man Haron Monis, out on bail, was holed up with four of the 18 hostages he had taken 16 hours earlier. They had been advised there was a bomb that the hostage-taker would likely detonate. Entire city blocks had been cleared with this expectation.
Under established anti-terror protocols, it was time to bring the crisis to a head. What followed over the next few minutes would see one of the hostages shot by Man Monis, triggering an Emergency Action that led to another tragic fatality and the death of the gunman.
For those who stormed the cafe — and the hundreds of officers who supported them that day — there would be no peace once the guns went silent. Instead they have been subjected to a two-year ordeal, a coronial inquest, driven by lawyers, who were hell-bent on turning the inquiry into a public witch-hunt.
I’ve had over 30 years policing experience and have been a police negotiator for the last two decades. I’ve worked on sieges where kids have been kidnapped by their parents and stand-offs where a mentally ill person has locked themselves away with high-powered firearms. I’ve had to talk mentally unstable individuals down from the abyss.
In those decades I’ve learnt that successful siege negotiations take time, they take empathy, they take courage. I’ve learnt to read the moments where a hostage taker can be engaged and when they can be pushed over the edge. I know what good policing looks like and I know that when confronted with disturbed people in stressful situations how important it is to stick to the well practiced procedures.
In NSW we have developed a world-regarded system for dealing with sieges, where the negotiators work hand in hand with tactical police to attempt to secure a peaceful resolution. The policy of contain and negotiate is what NSW Police are required to adhere to and for the most part it works well, ensuring the safety of all involved.
At the centre of this approach are a series of guidelines that dictate when to intervene through a Deliberate Action (DA) order and when to sit tight and only intervene when the situation escalates to such an extent that an Emergency Action (EA) trigger is reached.
Every siege is a judgment around whether to escalate or not, everyone involved should have the benefit of a debrief where the levels of escalation are reviewed to allow us to learn and improve. It is inexact but it is a science — and it is a science that saves lives. I am proud to say that NSW Police do it better than most other jurisdictions in the world. The training, protocols and expertise of NSW Police Negotiators has been exported, implemented and utilised by numerous western countries around the world.
I am also an Executive member of the Police Association of NSW, where I represent the interests of my members every day. Having watched this Coronial Inquest unfold I just can’t sit back and let what’s been allowed to happen within the courtroom go unchallenged.
In putting this post together, I have spoken to many of my colleagues who were in the field that day. Some of them were called to give evidence by the Coroner, others didn’t seem to have anything the Coroner wanted to hear.
But, within the limits of what can be legally disclosed, I believe these officers deserve to have their story told, before the history of the Lindt café siege is written as a story of a botched police operation. The reality is that nothing could be further from the truth.
The morning of December 15 was to be the second day on the street for nearly 20 probationary constables from Sydney Central. That was the day they would get allocated their lockers, receive induction briefings and meet their education officer.
Only days earlier they had sworn their oath of office.
“I will well and truly serve our Sovereign Lady the Queen as a police officer without favour or affection, malice or ill-will until I am legally discharged, that I will cause Her Majesty’s peace to be kept and preserved, and that I will prevent to the best of my power all offences against that peace, and that while I continue to be a police officer I will to the best of my skill and knowledge discharge all my duties faithfully according to law. So help me God. “
As these new recruits were being briefed, a highway patrol cyclist rode into Martin Place, news was breaking of a disturbance in the Lindt Café. The first officer on the scene went to the window to get as much information as possible, via non-verbal communications with the hostages.
That officer stayed at the window, putting himself at risk, to understand what was happening. With no body armour, only a Glock, he placed himself at extraordinary risk to obtain first hand intelligence for the operation to come. Such was his commitment to protect the lives of the hostages he had to be directed by senior police to withdraw from the area he was in.
Other police were also risking their lives to gather intelligence: a group of plainclothes detectives were placing themselves directly in harm’s way to get a view from the café windows.
Even more police rushed towards Lindt to assist, also placing themselves in the line of fire, securing a perimeter to stop people entering or leaving the area. Some of these police were in these positions for extended periods of time as it was deemed too dangerous to remove them from the areas they were in.
Police on Elizabeth Street were turning around buses and in doing so placed themselves in the direct line of fire from the café to achieve this feat. The law Courts were also closed to free up officers to deploy on foot.
The real spectre hanging over operations that day was the credible threat that Monis had a bomb in a backpack and was willing to detonate it. Police believed there was a bomb up until Monis was stopped. When the assessment was made that this was a terrorist incident the operation became more complex.
A Command centre was established.
Under the Counter Terrorism Protocols a clear chain of command was implemented and clear protocols required to be followed by police. An operations centre was established to allocate resources and gather intelligence.
Because of this heightened terror risk, police from across Sydney were redeployed to assist. Police came from the Central Metropolitan Region to lock down the area, remove traffic and pedestrians and clear nearby buildings.
Due to the threat posed by the bomb, the initial exclusion zone was seen as too small — and had to be expanded. This meant more evacuations, more road closures and more people and traffic to be moved to safety.
These were uniformed police trying to clear the busiest part of Sydney during the busiest part of the day and get people out of the locked down area.
Across Martin Place, the Channel Seven building went into lockdown, while the government offices, including State Ministers whose offices’ are in the vicinity, were quickly and quietly moved to safety.
As the threat escalated calls starting coming into police that there were other bombs across the city. There was a report, possibly from one of the hostages under duress, that there was a bomb in the Channel Seven building. Police entered, cleared the building of staff and utilised it during the entire operation, despite this bomb threat.
There was a report of another bomb at Town Hall and another at The Opera House. There was a report of a man with firearms in the Martin Place Tunnel. Police responded to each of these calls as an immediate threat to public safety as well as the Lindt Café
Across the city the terror threat sparked broader ground operations in line with the citywide terror response plan. Police were placed on high alert and directed to perform overt patrols to re-assure the public and protect critical infrastructure.
Police from State Crime Command, Bass Hill Region Enforcement Squad, the Public Order and Riot squad and other specialist commands were all called into the city.
Inside the café Monis forced his hostages to ring radio stations, post updates on Facebook and call relatives. Recognising that providing a terrorist with a public forum is one of the most dangerous elements of a siege, police negotiators were deployed to radio newsrooms to deal with incoming calls.
Police Commanders were also fending off unhelpful suggestions from third parties, including Islamic cleric’s and others seeking to intervene. Monis demanded to speak to then Prime Minister Tony Abbott. After all, what better way for a terrorist to make a statement than set a bomb off while talking to the PM?
As this was all being managed, two uniformed police officers establishing the perimeter were approached by the family of one of the hostages. Other family members gravitated to them and they assumed responsibility for caring for the loved ones of the hostages.
These police secured a room in the old Supreme Court building for the families and stayed with them for the next 14 harrowing hours, assisted by a Police Chaplain. These two officers managed their welfare as the hostages were texting and calling them, forming deep bonds with the family members.
My point? In all these varied ways, police were doing what we are trained to do. Putting public safety first and ahead of their own well-being.
As the day unfolded specially trained Police worked to develop scenarios and make the critical decision of when to intervene with force. Paramount in these considerations were two factors; the well-being of the 18 hostages, and the belief that Man Monis had a bomb that could be triggered at any time.
Police Commanders worked in cooperation and consultation with other agencies. Under the terrorism protocols officers were liaising with ASIO, Defence, AFP, and Foreign Affairs officials. Defence personnel recreated the café and planned a range of responses.
A consensus emerged that there was no credible Deliberate Action Plan that would not result in a loss of civilian life.
It is also worth noting that while these events were unfolding, Police were also dealing with three other sieges going on across the State. It was more than business as usual in the rest of the State too, as police in all Commands were deployed to protect and reassure their communities.
With the real prospect that Man Monis would trigger a bomb, 14 members of the Tactical Operations Unit prepared to enter the building.
In this scenario, the survival of the officers was unlikely, which is why they called their loved ones and said their goodbyes. Reflect on that. These people expected to die and still did their jobs. Who does that?
Ultimately, the call to enter the building came when Monis made the decision to execute a hostage. Prior to this point he had not harmed anyone.
There was much debate about the timing of this decision and I don’t think it is appropriate for me to pass judgment.
But I do know that the Operation Commander was acting on the information before him with a focus on avoiding the loss of life.
As they forced entry into the building one of the TOU team was hit by a bullet fired by Monis, but he continued into the building regardless. Tactical Police shot and killed Monis. Tragically, one of those bullets fragmented and hit one of the hostages.
At this stage, tactical police and negotiators began retrieving hostages, still under the belief there was the bomb which could detonate via a dead man’s switch or timer. But these Police stayed in the danger zone, clearing the building.
Once the hostages were released, bomb technicians entered the building with an expectation that the bomb could go off.
When the building was finally cleared, a “Critical Incident” was declared and seventy officers were deemed involved. These Police were interviewed and subjected to drug and alcohol testing by the Critical Incident Investigation Team.
The basic proposition appeared settled: a Person of Interest — Monis, had dictated the tragic outcome. Police had followed national guidelines and proven tactics.
While two innocent people were killed, that tragic outcome was not as devastating as any of the predicted outcomes from scenarios developed during the day.
Police acted not just professionally, but heroically and were applauded from the Premier down. This was the story of the Lindt Café Siege. Until the Inquest commenced.
The Coronial Inquest
There was always going to be an inquest, as there should be. In fact global terrorism events have proven the benefit of fast and thorough operational reviews. The theory is that terrorist tactics are moving so fast that incidents need to be reviewed quickly, so lessons can be learned and new processes taken on board.
For example, in December 2014, terrorists had not begun to use vehicles as a weapon, now it is their modus operandi as evidenced by tragic events overseas.
Overseas jurisdictions have recognised that terrorism matters require a thorough, expeditious judge-led commission of enquiry, typically with a six-week time frame.
Instead of a fast turnaround, the NSW Coronial Inquiry took 18 months to commence. A purpose-built court room in the CBD was constructed, lawyers were employed and a standalone media room was also fitted out. This time delay robbed police of the opportunity to properly debrief and review their operation.
As with any major Police operation issues such as communications systems, timing of the EA, and other aspects should have been reviewed in a professional, robust and confidential way.
Police decisions should be scrutinised, because we need to make the right decisions. If there are areas where performance can be improved the focus is to identify them quickly and rectify them.
It is worth noting that coronial inquests are run as inquisitorial processes, designed to determine identities of the deceased persons, the times and dates of their deaths and the manner and cause of their deaths. It gives the Coroner, a magistrate not a judge, the scope to make recommendation in relation to matters in connection with an inquest or inquiry (including recommendations concerning public health and safety and the investigation or review of matters by persons or bodies).
But instead of scrutiny, police officers were subjected to what can only be described as a media circus. Instead of a sober inquisitorial process it descended into an adversarial attack and instead of a search for the truth we witnessed taxpayer funded lawyers on a frolic, cross -examining police officers as if they were on trial.
For some lawyers the focus appeared to be not just to attribute blame but moral culpability, twisting words to belittle experienced officers. And every negative comment was being amplified by a media contingent breathlessly tapping the evidence straight onto social media platforms.
If there was a particularly egregious example of this, it was when a senior police officer was challenged for using the language that the siege was a ‘high stakes game’. The lawyer zeroed in on the Senior Commander to suggest that he had not taken his responsibility seriously, that he thought he was actually playing a game and that he should apologise the families.
How could a lawyer think so little of a Police Commander who had the lives of his officers and the general public in his care? How could the media seriously report this attack as news? How was this allowed to occur?
Sadly, it was not an isolated incident.
The conduct of this inquiry is a low point in a trend I have witnessed in Coronial Inquests over the past decade. They have gone from being sharp and focussed inquiries to an opportunity for lawyers to grandstand under the guise of advocating on behalf of the families of victims of tragedies. Of course, families should have a right to know what happened to a loved one, but I can’t help feeling the coronial processes has been abused?
Why? I can only start by pointing to the taxpayer funded fees of counsel assisting and many of the lawyers occupying row after row in that court room.
On conservative estimates this inquiry cost upwards of $20 million of taxpayer’s money to fund lawyers to attack police officers who had risked their lives for the NSW public.
Think about that?
What bothers me is that if this is how our system treats police officers — including senior incident commanders — why on earth would anyone put themselves forward to lead or be trained in this form of policing.
More fundamentally, such an aggressive system undermines public confidence in our ability to respond to terrorism. What impact this will have if, God forbid, we are confronted with another terrorist incident?
Of course, police officers expect to be accountable, but Police operations should not be a source of entertainment in such a calculating way.
And for all this money there were lines of inquiry that just do not seem to have been pursued to their conclusion. Most fundamentally why was Man Monis released on bail? Why didn’t they appeal the ruling?
When this line of questioning was opened the DPP claimed legal privilege and then sought and was granted public interest immunity from being questioned.
Thus, the fundamental driver of the deaths, the very fact that Man Monis was free, despite serious charges, was never publicly scrutinised by the inquest. This smacks of a double standard between the treatment of the legal fraternity and police officers.
I am also concerned that the detailed questioning of police officers has placed extensive information about sensitive operational information into the public domain.
For example, the tactics and capabilities of the Police snipers, were published and played out in a very public way. This was not an episode of 24, our police officers were operating within the constraints of the law and guidelines all designed to reduce the loss of life.
Police still mourn for the victims of the Lindt café siege. Members live with the memories of that day. Those thoughts will never leave the officers involved.
The ‘Lindt café diet ‘ has become a turn of phrase to discuss the loss of weight from stress and tension experienced by many of the officers who worked that day. Everyone asks themselves “could we have done it better?”
What these brave officers needed from the Inquest was a fair process to think those questions through. Not this extravagant taxpayer funded show trial.
Where to Now?
Two innocent and remarkable people died at the Lindt cafe and that’s a tragedy. But it was not a tragedy caused by the actions of police. It was the actions of a mentally ill individual out on bail for reasons that are still to be explained.
In my best estimate 21 police officers could have been killed if a bomb went off. Nine other members would have watched their mates blown up. And all the wives and partners and families who watched their loved ones running into the building to try and save people thinking they would never come home. The scale of what was at stake when those officers entered the building cannot be white-washed from history.
So what should happen now? I have three constructive ideas which are supported by the Police Association of New South Wales, hopefully the general public and most impossibly, the legal profession.
First, I would like to see a review of coronial processes around terrorism incidents to ensure they are faster, fairer and genuinely inquisitorial. I believe we need to use special senior judicial officers trained and involved in terrorism powers and legislation. And I don’t believe the evidence should be held in public.
Secondly, I would like to see a review of the DPP processes around bail applications with a particular focus on the decision not to appeal the Man Monis case.
And finally I would like to see someone publicly thank the scores of police who put their lives on the line for their community that day more than two and a half years ago.
Doesn’t actually seem like too much to ask, does it?