The terrible murder of a popular cafe owner in Melbourne by a lone terrorist has highlighted an emerging public issue. Just what are members of the public to do when they get caught up in such incidents?
Police forces around Australia have dedicated significant efforts to train police in dealing with “active killer” scenarios, and raising public awareness, as well as contributing to counter radicalisation programs. The bravery of police in this incident as well as the courage of civilians must be recognised. Complicating matters in the Melbourne attack was the fact the terrorist’s car was alight. We now know it contained gas cylinders, which he intended to blow up to cause more serious damage. Only his incompetence prevented a major explosion.
While no two incidents are the same, and it is an extremely difficult call to make on the spot, the public needs to differentiate between incidents where the police are on the scene and taking action, and incidents where their lives and those of others are in immediate danger and police have not arrived. It is sound advice to step back in the former, and leave it to police, who are trained and equipped.
The risks for the members of the public
Members of the public must consider the possible consequences of taking action if it is not absolutely necessary. They may get hurt, somebody else may get hurt, they may incur liability for that injury or they may get in the way of the police and worsen the situation through inadequate knowledge or understanding of these types of incidents and police methodology.
Victorian Police commissioner Graham Ashton acknowledged these dangers yesterday speaking on Melbourne radio when discussing the actions of Michael Rogers, who has become known as “trolley man”. “If a trolley had hit a police member and knocked him over and then this offender got on top of him, we could have had a tragic consequence,” the commissioner said.
Further, and this is an important point now that smart phones are so ubiquitous, remaining close to the incident simply to film it on a phone can be a recipe for disaster, as would have happened had the gas cylinders in Bourke Street blown up.
The last resort
In the second category, where authorities are not on the scene and danger is imminent, it may be advisable to act if no other option exists. What to do is the question. Many examples have arisen of brave civilians who have saved lives by taking action, most prominently the actions of courageous passengers during September 11 who brought down the fourth plane, apparently intended for either the White House or Congress. The heroic passengers on that plane had no other option. This should be a last resort.
Exhaustive research from numerous governments has led to the advice that members of the public should, if possible, run from the danger, or, if not possible, hide, and inform (raise the alarm) in that order. Trying to tackle a crazed, armed individual with no training and no equipment, if there are other options, is not ideal.
People should be alert in crowded places, make themselves aware of the environment, exit routes, and consider a plan of what to do if such an emergency arose. The key is to be aware of one’s environment, and to act as soon as danger arises, don’t freeze. Similarly, owner/operators of shops, businesses and restaurants in busy public streets should have a properly structured security plan in line with sensible national guidelines, and should drill their staff in those procedures.
Hope is not a plan
Across Australia and the world we are seeing these types of attacks, sweeping up businesses and individuals. We all have a responsibility to make ourselves aware and to think about “what would I do if this happened around me”. Hope is not a plan.
Nick Kaldas served for 35 years as a police officer in NSW Police, the last 10 as the deputy commissioner, and has led Counter Terrorism Command in NSW. He is chairman of Stratium Global, a consulting firm.
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