A New South Wales court has seen graphic footage of police shooting an Aboriginal man at least five times in the “obstructed tunnel” of a narrow hallway of a house in Sydney’s west, during an attempted arrest in November 2021.
Gomeroi man Stanley Russell, 45, was shot dead by police in his aunt’s home in western Sydney on 9 November 2021, after they had come to arrest him on an outstanding warrant.
There was limited body-worn video of the incident, the court heard. Of the four officers attending the scene, only one had turned on their body-worn camera, but they were in another part of the house at the time of the shooting.
Instead, the court was played a short piece of graphic taser footage, recorded after one of the officers put his taser on standby, in which Russell can be seen emerging from around a corner with a knife. There is shouting and one shot is fired, followed by a short pause, and then four more shots are heard.
The court heard that the officer who fired the initial shot believed “there was an immediate risk to his life” and that he had already attempted what he called “tactical disengagement”.
He said that Russell came out and lifted an axe above his shoulder, and he discharged his firearm, believing that Russell was trying to kill them. He continued to believe Russell was a serious threat and had not yet confirmed whether any of the shots had landed or if he had let go of the axe or the knife, and in a “split second” decided to fire further shots.
“There was no point during the shooting that I was having a conscious thought, you know, it almost happened automatically,” the officer said in his statement, as read out to the court by counsel assisting the coroner, Christina Stern.
On Monday, the coroner heard Russell was known to have attempted suicide in jail and had self-harmed in custody. He had a history of “extreme distress” at being taken into custody, the court was told.
Stern told the court Russell had suffered from depression, anxiety and increased substance use after the death of his brother in prison custody in the 1990s, and had spent long periods in jail for various offences.
Russell’s parents and son left the courtroom in distress before the taser footage of the incident was played. His parents, Ted and Helen Russell, lost their other son, Edward, in prison custody in 1999.
Earlier, Stern told the court that it should not pass unmentioned that “Ted and Helen and their family have now lost two children in circumstances to do with the criminal justice system in New South Wales.
“Nor should it pass unmentioned that this is the second time that Ted and Helen have been required to participate in an inquiry into the manner and cause of their child’s death by this court.
“I also mention it because his brother’s death may provide important context to the attitude and emotional responses to custody, and his attitude to officers and entities such as the New South Wales police,” Stern said.
“The death of his brother was the trigger for his poor health.”
In May 2021 Russell was arrested on a charge of intentionally or recklessly damaging property by fire and intentionally or recklessly destroying or damaging property, after a house fire in Walgett. He turned himself in on that occasion and was eventually given conditional bail. A warrant was later issued for his arrest, after he did not turn up for a court appearance for breaching his bail conditions.
The court heard Russell had attempted to hang himself in custody, had attempted self-harm and had had suicidal thoughts in custody on several occasions.
“Your honour might consider that the relevance of these matters are twofold,” Stern told the court.
“First, as indicators of the extreme distress that Stanley associated with custody and the extent of the steps he would take to avoid being in custody. And second, as indicative of mental health issues that Stanley experienced.
“You may consider that both of these obviously interlinked matters are relevant as to how it could have been anticipated Stanley may have reacted when faced with police officers seeking to execute the benchmark [warrant] on 9 November 2021,” she said.
The court heard that the police officer who took the lead on the arrest had checked and was aware there were “extensive warnings” about Russell’s history of self-harm, which “raised concerns” with him.
“He said that he remembered saying that there could be a confrontation here so be prepared,” Stern told the court. But, she said “roles were not allocated to the police officers” before the warrant was executed.
“There had been some discussion as to whether officers should go into the back yard but that was rejected. [The officer] said that it’s always assumed that the first officer can go where they assume the person is, and other officers go to clear the rest of the house,” but that “it was accepted that that there was no discussion about this”.
According to counsel assisting, a second officer also said “there was no discussion about what roles anyone would take during the execution of the warrant”.
The inquest is set down for two weeks.