An undercover police officer who shot dead an armed robber during the hold-up of a bottle shop had been told to let the crime occur rather than intervene, a Victorian court has heard.
Coroner Jacqui Hawkins is holding an inquest into the death of Troy Van Den Bemt, who was killed in 2018 by an officer who had been monitoring the armed robber and his associates as part of a covert police operation in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs.
On Thursday, the coroner’s court was shown CCTV footage of the shooting. It showed a Victoria police state surveillance unit (SSU) operative entering the Park Orchards store in plain clothes without identifying himself and then browsing the aisles shortly before 9pm on 28 January.
The officer, known as operative 129, had been outside as a stolen Toyota Kluger, with Van Den Bemt in the passenger seat, circled the store. Operative 129 then entered the store, with a gun and a radio hidden on him.
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After he was told by his colleagues that the stolen car was again approaching, operative 129 attempted to get the attendant to come to the rear of the store, in the hope that should Van Den Bemt arrive he would take cash from the unattended register at the front and flee.
But Van Den Bemt, wearing a balaclava and holding a sawn-off double-barrelled shotgun, ran straight towards both of them and tried to access an office and storeroom at the rear of the shop.
The attendant, Kanru Wang, and his father, Sean, who had been in the storeroom, tried to fight back with a metal pole and a chair. Operative 129 said in his statement that he became “extremely concerned” Van Den Bemt would shoot them, so he drew his semi-automatic handgun.
According to his statement, tendered to the Coroner, operative 129 then shot Van Den Bemt multiple times after the armed robber had turned towards him with the shotgun.
After the first shots, Van Den Bemt was then shown in the CCTV footage attempting to run from the store and being shot several more times in the back by operative 129.
An autopsy found he was shot six times, three times in the back. He had traces of methamphetamine, amphetamine and methadone in his system when he died.
It appeared operative 129 had discharged seven rounds, including one that hit a fridge, and Van Den Bemt also fired once into a different fridge during the incident.
The whole incident, from operative 129 entering the store, to Van Den Bemt being shot dead, had taken little more than two minutes.
Giving evidence today, acting superintendent Mark Ward, who was head of the armed crime squad at the time of the shooting, said Van Den Bemt and his associates were suspected of committing an aggravated burglary and armed robberies at two post offices, a Dan Murphy’s and an adult store in the 16 days before the incident.
The SSU had been tasked with following the suspected armed robbers as part of the armed crime squad operation.
Ward said a plan formulated by armed crime squad detectives and communicated on multiple occasions to the SSU in writing and verbally contained several options for arresting or disrupting the suspected armed robbers.
The plan hinged on Van Den Bemt or his associates being linked to the Kluger, the stolen car which had been linked to several other offences. If the suspects were in the car, police believed they had enough evidence to arrest them, Ward said.
The first option was for the special operations group (SOG), a heavily-armed tactical unit, to be called to arrest the suspects in the car.
Ward had already called the SOG earlier on 28 January as Van Den Bemt and an associate were reported by the SSU to be driving in convoy in two cars other than the Kluger in what appeared to be an attempt at counter surveillance.
Ward said that despite the men not being seen with the Kluger, their behaviour was unusual enough to call the SOG.
The second option, if the first was unsuccessful, was for armed crime squad officers to try to disrupt the robbery before it occurred by intercepting the Kluger, Ward said.
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The final option, he said, was for the SSU to allow the crime to occur and to surveil the offenders as they left the scene so that an arrest could occur later.
On 28 January, the SOG did not get to Park Orchards from the city in time, and there were issues with SSU radios given to armed crime squad detectives that meant they could not properly communicate, Ward said, meaning it was unclear if option two could occur.
But he said the operational plan still made clear that despite these issues the SSU should have still allowed the crime to run, as that was the best risk management strategy.
He said in his 15 years in the force he was aware of multiple offences including other armed robberies with firearms being allowed to occur while the offender was being monitored by the SSU, as it had been deemed unsafe to attempt an arrest.
“I don’t want it to happen,” Ward told the court, “but if we can’t safely prevent it, and we don’t have the intelligence to stop it, I would rather not force a confrontation with an armed offender.
“[These plans] are tried and tested, and they are used today when you have limited intelligence and you have surveillance units following persons of interest, because the reality is, and everyone is aware of it, that when a surveillance unit is following a person of interest they could commit an offence.”
Ward said the risk factors considered as part of the plan included that no violence had occurred in any of the other robberies but that the behaviour of shop attendants or other civilians was unpredictable.
He agreed that operative 129 may have thought that by entering the store he could allow the crime to occur as safely as possible, but Ward still would have advised against it.
The inquest before Hawkins will continue on Friday.