Morning Story: Police shooting leaves questions

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"Pop, pop, pop", the elderly gentleman said.

His description made me think of balloons, or the sound my kids listen for in a bowl of milky Rice Bubbles.

It was, I thought, a strangely innocuous account of something so deadly.

"I heard at least five shots," he added, sitting on his doorstep shaking his head, just 30 metres from the scene.

It was a dreary Monday morning in the settlement of Omahu, March 28, 2011. The sky was a gun-metal grey.

A handful of spent Glock pistol shells lay shining on the road. Two patrol cars were cordoned off, empty. A pair of black and white sneakers belonging to the deceased could be seen in the cold grass.

I arrived just after 7am. It was my first news assignment of the week.

Five hours earlier, while the rest of us slept, 19-year-old Lachan Kelly-Tumarae was gunned down by police in circumstances yet unknown.

A year on he lies buried in Omahu Cemetery, close to his grandfather, metres from where he was shot multiple times.

To me, the proximity of death and burial remains the most uncanny aspect of this case.

But it's by no means the only one.

Relatives said the shotgun he brandished belonged to the duck-shooting grandfather he now rests next to in the urupa.

The teenager took officers on a slow-speed pursuit from Napier to Omahu. He then pulled over next to the urupa, stopping almost directly under a streetlight. Strangely, for someone being chased, he chose not to embrace the cloak of darkness.

Choosing that spot on Taihape Rd begs many questions.

Maybe it was nothing more than a teenager seeking the solace of his buried ancestors in a time of extreme anguish.

Maybe he suspected, or sadly, hoped, this would be his final stop.

After a volley of shots (I counted seven casings on the road) he fell near a wooden rack of plastic milk bottles full of water. This bottled water is traditionally used outside urupa by Maori to wash away tapu after visiting the dead.

Conjecture too surrounds where he drew his last breath. Some claim he died at the scene. A police investigator last week was at pains to point out he died in hospital.

Did he point, or did he present the shotgun? Is there a difference? Was there a shot fired inside or outside his vehicle? Were any shotgun shells found?

For argument's sake let's consider an altogether different outcome in Omahu. That is, a police officer dies of gunshot wounds. I have no doubt whatsoever that scenario would re-ignite calls for police to carry arms. National media would be full of the debate, again, claiming officers should stop bringing knives to a gunfight.

When talking firearms, it seems the cops simply can't win.

What's been clear in my time court reporting is that when it comes to criminal charges police are harder on themselves than civilians. Perception is all important of course, but both a moral authority and public duty inch the bar higher.

This also seems to be the public's expectation.

But while a noble stance, in the Omahu incident it poses a problem. That is, there's an inclination to regard this shooting as a simple case of a troubled Maori teen versus the state.

These were two armed men in the murky darkness of a rural settlement at 2am. One, of course, was better armed, better trained and presumably in a better mindset.

But in that defining moment where police feel compelled to point a firearm at a fellow human being, they're not acting as officers.

The will to live and the right to life are utterly human traits - not something picked up at police college.

As was to be expected, the shooting made national headlines. Back then the conjecture rankled with Police Association president Greg O'Connor, who claimed the officer's grief was only worsened by such "early speculation".

Well Mr O'Connor, 370 days into the investigation and we're now seeing late speculation.

So far we've had nothing definitive from the coroner's office, the internal police inquiry or Independent Police Complaints Authority. With such glacial progress, the public and Lachan's family can hardly be blamed for attempting to fill the gaps.

The only fact we can safely infer from the lengthy investigation, is that this case has fish hooks. And plenty of them.

Amid all the speculation and questions, police and Lachan's family presumably have just the one: was the officer justified? Was squeezing the trigger, multiple times, a reaction commensurate with the danger the officer perceived he faced?

A family seeks answers, a community wants accountability and a police officer hopes for exoneration.

But let's not expect any winners. There simply aren't any.

Mark Story is assistant editor at Hawke's Bay Today.

- HAWKES BAY TODAY

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