Editorial: Shooting report raises concerns

The report into the shooting of Stephen Bellingham is a depressingly familiar tale that poses a number of questions for police, and provides little comfort for the dead man's family.

Bellingham was a 37-year-old with no psychiatric or criminal history. In September 2007, fuelled by a cocktail of party pills and cannabis, he went off the rails severely when he armed himself and began to smash up his Christchurch neighbourhood.

Witnesses said he appeared "possessed by the devil" and went on a rampage with a number of potential weapons including a hammer. Two young officers were sent to the scene, followed by an extremely experienced senior sergeant, known as officer A.

Officer A took off to the incident after arming himself with a handgun and came across Bellingham, warning him to stop. Bellingham didn't, advancing on him with the hammer. Officer A fired four shots at him, including a fatal shot to his chest. Bellingham died at the scene.

An Independent Police Conduct Authority (IPCA) report has found that officer A acted in self defence, but raises a number of concerns about his approach. The officer, who Bellingham's mother claims took a "Rambo-style" approach, broke a number of police protocols. He did not tell his communications controller he was going to the scene, nor did he advise them he was armed. He then failed to brief the two other officers who were on their way to the scene so that he could tackle Bellingham with support. Crucially, a dog patrol unit, which would have been a huge asset to the effort to contain Bellingham, was diverted to another crime.

It is hard to know what else Bellingham could have expected. If you arm yourself with a hammer, smash up your neighbourhood and then advance on a police officer with a gun, it is difficult to see any other outcome. But the IPCA was right to be concerned about the officer's approach. He ignored a number of protocols and decided to tackle Bellingham, who he knew was potentially dangerous, without any backup. In retrospect his actions look rash but hindsight is a wonderful thing. They did not amount to misconduct or neglect of duty, the IPCA said. It recommended he carrying out further training and mentoring before returning to frontline duty.

The report is unlikely to give Bellingham's family any closure. They're left with a number of imponderables. What if the officer had waited for more backup? Would their son be alive if the dog patrol had not been diverted? Would he still be alive if police had been armed with tasers? A young man has lost his life. Officer A has to live with the fact he shot and killed a man, and has had his career blighted by the incident. And part of the blame surely must also sit at the door of whoever sold or gave Bellingham the cannabis and BZP that triggered the events that led to his death.

The Timaru Herald