Police divided over strategy during Lindt cafe siege in Martin Place, Sydney

Canberra Times

Rick Feneley4 hrs ago

© Daniel Munoz Police had to adopt the reactive "emergency action" after Monis fired his first shot

Tensions have emerged among police about the command strategy during the Lindt cafe siege and a late decision that some officers believe put hostages at greater risk.

Fairfax Media has learned of the shift in strategy following the revelation that hostage Katrina Dawson was shot by a stray police bullet in the final shootout with gunman Man Haron Monis.

On the night of December 15, many hours into the siege, senior police drew up a "direct action" plan, under which they would storm the cafe and take Monis by surprise.

Such a strategy is high-stakes and likely to result in some casualties among hostages, but the tactical operations unit and other senior police had weighed up the risks of not going in, including changes in Monis’ demeanour and the prospect that he would start killing hostages if police did not act first.

There was consideration of proceeding with such a plan but, late on that Monday night, a command decision overruled that strategy.

Instead, police had to adopt the reactive "emergency action" after Monis fired his first shot, into the ceiling, at 2.03am. Monis fired as a response to the escape of six of his remaining 13 hostages.

About 2.10am, Monis executed cafe manager Tory Johnson. Police in Martin Place instantly stormed the cafe and – amid a blaze of gunfire – they killed Monis.

But it is understood that, among about 25 rounds fired by police, two ricocheted and hit 37-year-old Ms Dawson, the barrister and mother of three killed in the siege.

© Supplied Victim: Katrina Dawson died after being shot by a stray police bullet.

The NSW Police Force refused to comment, saying it is conducting an independent critical-incident investigation led by the homicide squad and "will not be drawn into speculation".

Some operational police are sensitive that any criticism of police will focus on the tragic final minutes of the hostage drama. They believe the lessons will be drawn from the 16 hours of management decisions that preceded the shooting.

Fairfax Media understands the direct action plan was ready to go several hours earlier.

A "DA" is normally a last resort, acted on only when police decide standing back will endanger more lives.

It is a balancing act, in which police must assess all the pieces of intelligence they can gather: Where are the hostages positioned in the room? Where is the hostage taker? Is he moving about? What is his state of mind and how has it changed?

After five hostages escaped on the Monday afternoon, Monis had threatened to take an "eye for an eye" and start killing people if any more dared to escape.

But police also need to build a realistic picture of what is likely to happen if and when they burst through the door. Then they must consider timing. Is there an optimal time to go in?

Despite the risks, the advantage of a direct action plan is that police seize control and decide the time rather than react in split seconds to the gunman’s action.

Fairfax Media has learned there is some anger among police at the front line of the siege about the decision not to proceed with the direct action plan.

In the seven minutes that followed the 2.03am escape, police would have had time to debrief the hostages. They would have quickly separated them – to ensure one’s account did not contaminate that of another – to glean the latest details from inside.

Police rejected the offers of many in the Muslim community to help them negotiate with the gunman. It is understood they would be loath to allow third parties, with no experience in hostage negotiations, to talk to a gunman – because they may be unable to control what they say or how the hostage taker might react.

Among those to offer their services were the Grand Mufti of Australia, Dr Ibrahim Abu Mohammad, but he was not called in – neither to help negotiate nor to advise police.

It appears police had no or little direct contact with Monis. On the account of Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione during the siege, at 5.33pm he said "in fact we’re not dealing directly with him".

Mr Scipione repeated that advice at 6.07pm and 7.46pm, when he said: "At this stage we do not have direct contact with the offender."

The Police Force said: "The critical incident investigation is oversighted by the Professional Standards Command and a report will be prepared for the coroner. No further comment is appropriate