Police deny knowing of plan to let armed group commit crime, Victorian inquest into robber’s death hears

Undercover police officers tailing a group of suspected armed robbers deny they knew of a plan to allow the men to commit a crime if they could not be safely arrested first, the Victorian coroner’s 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 an operation in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs.

The State Surveillance Unit operative, known as 129, had entered a suburban bottle shop in January 2018 before Van Den Bemt attempted an armed robbery with a sawn-off shotgun.

Operative 129 shot Van Den Bemt dead when he became fearful the armed robber would harm a shop attendant, according to a statement he provided to the coroner.

Counsel assisting the coroner, Paul Lawrie, said on Friday that a Victoria police critical incident review report said an SSU team leader, operative 145, claimed he was unaware of an arrest and disruption plan created by the armed crime squad, saying he had not been told to “let it run” if the group committed a crime.

The armed crime squad’s plan hinged on Van Den Bemt or his associates being inside a stolen car that had been linked to several other offences.

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.

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 car.

The final option 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.

In a statement tendered to Hawkins, Det Snr Cst Kevin Squires said he told operative 145 about this plan.

In evidence before the court on Friday, Squires said he did not read from the plan “verbatim” when he discussed it with operative 145.

But when Lawrie asked why there appeared to be a discrepancy between his memory and operative 145’s, given the evidence the operative provided as part of the critical incident review, Squires said: “I was very forthright in discussing those options with my members and the SSU.”

Two former armed crime squad detectives, Det Sgt Simon Polson and acting Supt Mark Ward, have also told the coroner they disagreed with aspects of the critical incident review.

The review, they said, contained inferences that a risk assessment had not been done, that it was not possible for the armed crime squad to arrest Van Den Bemt as specified in the plan because its detectives were not close enough to the SSU, and that there was no proper briefing given to the SSU.

The coroner heard on Friday that a senior Victoria police officer had prepared a document outlining several factual inaccuracies included in the critical incident review report, but Ward said he did not know who – if anyone – had asked the officer to do so.

Polson said there had been several changes made to procedure since the incident, but plans that allowed offenders to commit crimes while being watched by the SSU were still being used by Victoria police.

He said that as a result of the shooting the armed crime squad was now required to include arrest and disruption plans as part of its initial requests for SSU assistance.

Victoria police also provides tablet devices to detectives in the field during some operations, Polson said, which allowed them to locate covert operatives.

The digital radios often used to communicate between the SSU and detectives were unreliable, the court heard on Thursday. The inability to communicate between the detectives and operatives is being investigated as part of the inquest.

Lawrie pressed Polson on whether the operation was particularly complex, and therefore required a more complex plan to allow for contingencies.

Van Den Bemt had been jailed for armed robberies more than a decade earlier, he and his crew were suspected to have committed armed robberies in the previous month and made threats to members of the public, and there was suspicions that the men were substance abusers.

“I’d say it’s a fairly standard investigation that’s run by the armed crime squad,” Polson said. “We’d have far more complex investigations than this. I’d describe it as a fairly routine investigation.”

Polson said he disagreed with operative 129’s decision to go inside the bottle shop, but he did not want to question the decision or the “autonomy” of the operative.

“It would be my opinion that it would be dangerous situation to enter knowing that an armed robbery could occur and that the offender was armed with a firearm, not to mention there was multiple offenders, meaning he could be outnumbered and be in a firefight,” Polson said.

“It is not an ideal situation whatsoever … I don’t think it was a good idea, but at the same time, I understand that police have sworn an oath to protect the public, so I understand why he may have acted the way he did.”

The inquest continues.

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