22 February, 2024
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Parents haunted by sound of police shooting their son

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Mark McKenzie has listened to his son’s last moments literally hundreds of times.

“You can hear them scream, ‘drop the knife, drop the knife’ and within eight seconds he’s dead,” he says.

The recording is among all that remains of the tragedy because tactical police were not using body-worn cameras when they shot him.

Officers were called to Todd McKenzie’s home on July 31, 2019 after the 40-year-old allegedly threatened neighbours with a knife during a schizophrenic episode.

He barricaded himself inside, prompting a stand-off.

Over the next nine hours, more than 20 police surrounded the Taree residence on the NSW mid north coast.

When it was believed negotiations could go no further, tactical operatives stormed the house deploying non-lethal weapons including tasers and then shot him three times.

His parents have spent every day since combing through what happened.

Todd McKenzie was four years old when he started hearing voices. At six, he was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, a condition with symptoms of schizophrenia and a mood disorder.

As he got older, he took great interest in the world and people around him but would withdraw when he felt unable to cope.

His diagnosis made him self-conscious and wary of upsetting others.

But by 2012, Todd started to come to terms with his mental health and found it easier to manage his symptoms after he began taking medication and seeing a psychiatrist.

The night of the shooting, his mum June and step-father Neil Wilkins were preparing dinner when the phone rang.

On the surface, the police response seemed positive. Officers assured them they would take things slowly and escort Todd to hospital.

“But the whole way the scenario played out,” Neil says, “That was never going to be the case.”

 Mark McKenzie says he wouldn’t wish what happened after his son’s death upon anyone. Image by Bianca De Marchi/AAP PHOTOS 

They tried to call the police back, hoping to offer tips on safely guiding Todd outside but couldn’t get through to anyone at the scene.

Instead, the Wilkins and Mark McKenzie were told not to go to the house.

The only updates they received came from a niece who lived across the road.

About 10pm, she heard shots ring out and then saw an ambulance rush away.

Manning Base Hospital was only a short drive but June and Neil didn’t make it in time.

Mark stayed at the hospital until 2am.

“Even now we wake up in the morning and think did it really happen,” Neil says.

“It just felt as if pieces of your life had been taken away.”

The family’s understanding of the night was patchwork at best as a coronial inquest was delayed for three years due to the complexity of the case and police efforts to keep confidential information coming to light.

Justice delayed felt like justice denied.

In a submission to the court, Mark McKenzie said he wouldn’t wish what happened after his son’s death upon anyone.

“It seems like the interests of the family always get pushed to one side, whilst the police get to do what they like,” he said.

“After a while, the process itself becomes draining and the trauma of what happened catches up.”

The inquest, which finally began in March, was told an officer jeered at Todd early in the stand-off as his colleagues laughed.

He was heard on bodycam footage saying: “I’d much rather you come out here with your bloody knife and (have a) go (at) us all.

“I’m getting f***ing sick of this.”

Some police knew Todd’s psychosis was fuelled by a fear of people entering his home but the team stormed in regardless.

“To have a loaded Glock pointed at his face pushed Todd over the edge,” Mark says.

“He was like a caged animal.”

Schizoaffective disorder and schizophrenia can trigger psychosis, making it hard to distinguish what is real and what isn’t.

Director of mental health organisation SANE Cameron Solnordal has lived with schizophrenia for over 20 years.

Psychosis is different to the ongoing experience of the broader, more manageable condition and could feel like prolonged and intense bullying, he explains.

“For a person who has not experienced a moment or an hour or a day where they have not walked outside and thought everyone out there was trying to kill them, that is a very difficult thing to try and wrap your head around.”

 Justice delayed felt like justice denied for June Wilkins and husband Neil (right). Image by Bianca De Marchi/AAP PHOTOS 

Todd had previous encounters with the police where he was safely guided to a hospital, leaving his family wondering how things went so wrong the night he died.

“They didn’t succeed in resolving the situation peacefully, so that was a great failure,” Mark says.

“There’s no way of sugarcoating it, that led to the death of my son.”

In 2015, 22-year-old Courtney Topic was was shot dead by police 41 seconds after they arrived to find her wielding a knife in a western Sydney car park.

An inquest revealed she was likely living with undiagnosed and untreated schizophrenia.

In May 2023, an officer tasered Clare Nowland, a 95-year-old diagnosed with dementia, as she approached with a steak knife. She died the following week in hospital.

The same month, a Law Enforcement Conduct Commission report found nearly half of all NSW Police incidents involved someone experiencing a mental health crisis, while officers received “extremely limited” response training.

Karina Hawtrey from the National Justice Project, the human rights firm acting for Mr and Mrs Wilkins, says governments may need to assess alternatives to policing.

“Police are really ill-equipped to deal with the complexity of mental health issues but unfortunately it’s something they’re consistently called out to,” she told AAP.

To the credit of police, she and the family say detectives worked tirelessly to uncover the volumes of evidence presented to the inquest during their investigation into Todd’s death.

Yet they still want better de-escalation training for officers and mandatory body-worn cameras for tactical units.

The NSW government is trialling the deployment of clinicians alongside police at mental health incidents, with the program available in 10 command areas eight hours daily.

A spokesperson says the force can’t respond to questions about Todd McKenzie’s shooting while the case remains with the coroner, although Acting Commissioner David Hudson has revealed officers were deployed to about 64,000 mental health incidents in 2022.

“Many of those … we probably should not have deployed to,” he said at the time.

“Showing up with police training can escalate a situation rather than de-escalate it and we would suggest perhaps clinicians are better placed to resolve some of these incidents.”

However, Mr Hudson also said someone undergoing a mental health episode could pose significant public danger and police had a duty to protect.

The comments were tied to the death of Krista Kach, fatally shot by police in the chest with a bean bag round after a nine-hour stand-off.

The coroner is expected to make a series of recommendations resulting from Mr McKenzie’s death.

His family doesn’t expect significant change but want her analysis to shine a light.

Todd McKenzie had an enduring passion for art. He painted in vivid hues, creating pieces brimming with detail and life.

One day, June hopes to hold an exhibition and show a different side of him to the world.

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