Deleted text messages and botched directions underscore the flaws in an operation senior police say was not their responsibility. By Mike Seccombe.

How top-ranking NSW police failed the Lindt cafe siege

NSW Police Force Deputy Commissioner Catherine Burn leaves the Lindt cafe siege inquest on Tuesday.
NSW Police Force Deputy Commissioner Catherine Burn leaves the Lindt cafe siege inquest on Tuesday.

In this story

Failure is an orphan. The old saying has rung so true this past week, as the top brass of the New South Wales Police Force finally fronted the inquest into the Lindt cafe siege.

They never said it in so many words, but the essence of evidence from Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione and Deputy Commissioner Catherine Burn was “not my baby”.

Scipione, Burn and acting deputy commissioner Jeff Loy all insisted their roles in the 17-hour drama were never “operational”.

They were “executive”, which meant they had nothing to do with the decisions, and indecisions, of December 15 and 16, 2014, after Man Haron Monis took 18 hostages in the Martin Place cafe, an event that ended with a rushed police action and the deaths of Monis and two hostages, Katrina Dawson and Tori Johnson. 

In their non-operational roles, the chiefs liaised. They talked to people – senior operational people, political people and media people – but when it came to the actual on-the-ground, life-and-death calls on how to deal with Monis, they did nada. Nix. Nil.

So they say. 

This might seem counterintuitive, particularly in the case of Burn, who was the designated head of counterterrorism. And all the more peculiar given that in the days and weeks after the siege, the government spun things as though she had been a central actor, rather than a bit player.

NSW premier Mike Baird himself told media in mid-January 2015, after the first stories began appearing suggesting failings in the police response, “I worked alongside Deputy Commissioner Catherine Burn throughout the entire siege. I have nothing but admiration, respect and gratitude for the incredible work she did. That goes for the other police officers involved, all the way up to Commissioner Andrew Scipione.” 

But as the inquest winds up – Burn and Scipione were the last scheduled witnesses – it is open to question whether that admiration was merited.

Let us say right at the top it was an incredibly difficult situation: 18 hostages, an irrational perpetrator armed with a gun and possibly a bomb in a backpack.

Let us concede also that the failings in dealing with Monis began long before he took those hostages. The chain of events began in 1996, when he flew into Australia on a short-stay business visa, claimed asylum, and later was granted citizenship, despite a number of red flags. He had been assessed as a security threat by ASIO in 1999. Long before the siege, he had become a serial pest to politicians and security agencies, had accumulated dozens of criminal charges. When he walked into the Lindt Chocolate Café he was on bail on a charge of being an accessory to the murder of his wife.

That said, though, the evidence before this final stage of the long-running inquest points to a New South Wales Police Force woefully unprepared for an event such as this. 

For a start, communications were extraordinarily bad.

To cite one example: a senior constable with the tactical operations unit, codenamed Alpha Two, who was the first to enter the cafe for the final firefight with Monis, arrived at the scene about 10.15am that day.

He and his team were told to take up a position on Phillip Street, ready for action. But within 10 minutes of getting there, said Alpha Two, he discovered his radio had, as he put it, “shit itself”.

“I knew that we didn’t have any spares,” he said, so for the next 15-odd hours he was forced to rely on a “buddy system”, whereby instructions were relayed verbally to him by others in his team.

Radio failures occurred sporadically throughout the day and night. Critically, they affected the people with the best view of what was happening inside the Lindt cafe, the police snipers, who saw Monis preparing to shoot Tori Johnson. Right at the end, after Monis executed Johnson and police were forced, belatedly, to act, a radio glitch prevented the tactical commander from giving the order to storm the cafe.

The litany of inadequacies is long. A specialist truck, equipped with soundproof booths, whiteboards and sophisticated communications equipment, had not been available since 2011, when it was badly damaged in a crash. It was subsequently sold and had never been replaced.

As a result, negotiators worked from a four-wheel-drive vehicle for the first few hours of the siege, before moving to an office at a city leagues club. There was only a single phone line and some calls from hostages were diverted to another area in the club.

Attempts were made to record the conversations on a dictaphone, but several hours of calls went missing. The primary negotiator, “Peter”, said he was not good with technology.

Nor were the communications problems all technical in nature, although most had their basis in technical problems. The negotiators appeared not to be well trained. They never managed to speak to Monis himself, and some information gleaned from hostages was not passed on to them.

For example, “Peter” told the inquest he was not made aware of a Monis demand that Christmas lights in Martin Place be turned off. Had he known, he said, he might have been able to use the information as a bargaining chip.

We could go on, reciting the litany of problems, but the point is that Catherine Burn – the head of counterterrorism in NSW – appeared unaware of many of them.

We’ll never know exactly what she knew of events during the siege, because she deleted from her phone text messages she received in the night. Under examination on Wednesday about why she had done so, she said it was because she was not operationally involved.

It did not occur to her that the information might have been relevant to an inquiry into events on the night or to planning for similar situations in the future.

“I did not think I was an involved person in this matter,” she said. “I don’t believe I deleted anything that would have relevance.”

But one revealing text did come to light, because she converted it to an email to herself. Burn did not mention it in her statement, put before the inquest. It was turned up only on Monday, in a search by police IT staff.

The message was sent to her by Commissioner Scipione just a few hours before the end of the siege, and it referred to conversations he had with front-line officers about the inadequacies of their equipment.

“Catherine, I’ve had a quick chance to talk to the SSG [Special Service Group] team who were forward tonight,” Scipione wrote.

“It has become apparent we should be preparing a fresh bid for any new equipment as necessary.”

He asked her to get advice “as to any new electronic imaging or audio equipment that we might need”.

The text suggested they talk about it the next day, and ended: “See you bright and early…”

Under questioning about it, Burn said she had been unaware of the problems. She had not visited the forward command post during the night. She went off duty at 10pm – under Scipione’s instructions – as did he.

The head of counterterrorism was unaware that the tactical officers who would be required to risk their lives had to rely on a buddy system because of radio failure. Indeed, Phillip Boulton, SC, for the Dawson family, had to explain to her what was meant by the term “buddy system”.

Boulton put it to her that she had “no idea” what Scipione was talking about in his text.

“No,” she said. “I didn’t know at the time.”

Nor did she inquire of the senior operational officers if things were operating properly. That, she said, “was not my role”.

Which raises the question: What was her role? She might not have been involved operationally, but would her executive function as head of the unit not require that she ensured in advance that the operational officers had the relevant training and equipment to cope with the situation?

1 . Scipione’s role

Let us turn now to Scipione. In his case, the questioning went the other way – to suggestions that he was more involved in operational matters than he should have been.

Two issues in particular were of interest.

One related to a YouTube video, uploaded by one of the hostages at Monis’s behest, setting out his demands and critical of the police.

Scipione was concerned the video might encourage more terrorist acts. There was a lot of social media “chatter” about it. So at 11.59pm he sent an email to other senior police, including the operational commander and Assistant Commissioner, Mark Jenkins:

“Gents this has just been sent to me. Let’s move to have it pulled down from Youtube ASAP. I will leave it with you.”

That might sound like an order, but Scipione insisted it was not.

The decision on whether or not to have the video taken down was not his to make, he insisted. It was ultimately a decision for the operational leaders.

That’s what he meant by “I will leave it with you”. Not that he was leaving it with them to do it, but leaving it with them to decide whether to do it.

Scipione said he was cognisant of the possibility that such an action might serve to further disturb Monis, and even result in reprisals against the hostages.

In one way, the point was moot. As Scipione said, the decision had already been taken by Jenkins to remove the YouTube clip. But it went to the question of whether he had interfered in the operation.

Scipione and Burn were not originally slated to appear at the inquest. Counsel for the families of the two slain hostages had pushed for it, but the lawyer for the NSW Police Force, Ian Freckelton, QC, had argued that: “The position of Mr Scipione, Ms Burn and Mr Loy is that they did not give any order, direction or provide any guidance or advice in respect of the conduct of the siege on the day…”

The second suggestion of interference by Scipione in operational matters was potentially more serious.

It related to a terse entry by a police scribe who logged the actions of Jenkins on the night. At 10.57pm, Jenkins received a brief phone call from Scipione. The log entry said: “DA to occur as last resort – COP.”

The initials DA stood for “deliberate action”, and COP for “chief of police”.

A deliberate action is the police term for the planned storming of a siege “stronghold”. This is not what happened on the night of the Lindt siege. In the early hours of December 16, police were forced into what they call an emergency action or EA. The difference is that a DA is proactive, while an EA is reactive. In one, the police decide the timing; in the other, the terrorist does.

While plans had been formulated for a deliberate action to the Lindt siege, they were never formally approved. The police response, until Monis forced their hand, was to continue with a strategy of containment and negotiation.

For Scipione to have instructed the operational commander on tactics would have amounted to the most serious intervention.

Scipione, however, denied he had done any such thing. The 10.57 phone call had really just been a “welfare check”, he said. He wanted to see how things were going, whether Jenkins was “settled” in his role as operational chief, and to ensure he “had what he needed”.

He noted the scribe could hear only Jenkins’ end of the conversation and it was not a verbatim transcript. The comments about a DA being a last resort were Jenkins, not his, said Scipione. The coroner, Michael Barnes, will decide this.

There are other questions, too, that emerged from the appearance of these last two witnesses, as well as the 117 others who preceded them over the 109 sitting days of this inquest, on which Barnes will have to cogitate.

Like the potential role of the military in such situations in the future. As things stand now, there are barriers to using military force in domestic situations. There is a formal process by which they can completely take over, but the question of whether they can simply lend certain equipment or personnel to a police operation seems to have no clear answer.

Likewise, there is the matter of whether a terrorist siege should be approached differently from a standoff of other kinds, such as a domestic dispute, for instance. The international evidence now shows that the chances of reaching a negotiated outcome with someone prepared to be a martyr for a cause are far lower. Perhaps in such circumstances police and/or the military should take quicker recourse to deliberate action.

Not all the questions arising from this inquest are for the coroner alone. Premier Mike Baird faces some big ones, too. Andrew Scipione’s term as commissioner already has been extended by the government. He will retire within the next year or so.

It was long assumed his successor would be either Burn or another deputy commissioner, Nick Kaldas. But the politics at the top of the NSW Police Force, and between Burn and Kaldas in particular, have been toxic for years.

We have not the space to go into the detail here, but the upshot is the highly respected Kaldas quit the force in March.

In other circumstances that would have left Burn in the box seat for the job. But after this week, you have to wonder. Failure is an orphan, and it makes them, too.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 20, 2016 as "How top police failed the siege".

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Mike Seccombe is The Saturday Paper’s national correspondent.

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