UNDER ATTACK: Battle-scarred police speak out
PUNCHED, kicked, bitten, spat on, shot at, attacked with knives, glass and tools, every day police in the Tweed Byron Police District come under attack as they go about their business of keeping the community safe.
In the 12 months to February 2017, there were 171 incidents in which police were attacked and suffered an injury.
Shocking yes, but even more so when you consider the district has only 160 sworn officers.
Tweed Byron Police District Superintendent Wayne Starling and Chief Inspector Mick Dempsey have nearly 70 years of policing experience between them. The duo were upfront about their concerns, particularity the rise of synthetic drugs which are flooding the region and causing users to lose all inhibitions, gain almost superhuman strength, inhabit a berserk mindset and attack anyone without warning.
Recent incidents involving a new amphetamine-like drug on the Far North Coast have shown pepper sprays and Tasers to be ineffective, they said.
"There were 44 police at Byron Bay, and of those 44 police that were assaulted in Byron Bay, each one of those was due to drugs and alcohol," Supt Starling said.
He said a tiny but highly vicious percentage of the population, often under the effects of synthetic drugs, were attacking officers for simply doing their job.
Just ask Senior Constable Kylie Campbell.
In May 2016, the 43-year-old was concussed after being punched several times in the head by a man she and Senior Constable Mick Chaffey had been sent to check up on after he was seen wandering along a busy road.
While Sen-Constable Chaffey was struggling to contain the man, the injured Sen-Constable Campbell made her way to the police vehicle to call for backup before collapsing.
Moments later she struggled to her feet and leaped into the fray to support her partner.
Eventually, with the help of several members of the public, Sen-Constable Chaffey was able to restrain and handcuff Paul Pierre Eleftheriou, 39, and get assistance for his colleague, who by then was unconscious.
Now two years later, Sen-Constable Campbell can't recall the details of the incident.
She has seen the footage captured on the automatic video fitted to Sen-Constable Chaffey's taser, as well as nearby CCTV at Uncle Tom's Pies, many times but still the actual assault remains elusive.
Eventually, Eleftheriou was jailed for 16 months then deported, which all the police involved said was a good ending.
After 14 years in the uniform, Sen-Constable Campbell said she detested the use of force.
"Prior to that incident, as much as you're trained and you know that it could happen, you hope it won't," she said.
"I went back (to the job) but then four months later I was hurt chasing another offender and had knee surgery."
Now after 12 months of restricted duty, Sen-Constable Campbell said she was happy to be back at work in Mullumbimby.
"I wish the general public would understand we are there to help," she said.
"I'm a hippie at heart, I will not use physical force unless it's absolutely necessary."
Unfortunately for these officers, their last resort is having to be called on more and more often.
Supt Starling said he was very proud of the officers in his command who constantly rose to the occasion to protect the community, often putting themselves in the firing line.
"Keeping the community safe is what we signed up for when we joined," he said.
"While police are trained to de-escalate matters, we have to use tactical skills when drugs are involved as people are not logical. When people who may be normally reasonable take certain types of drugs, they become like animals."
For Supt Starling, looking after those who wear the uniform means being accountable to all in his command.
"I am the person responsible for the safety of our police. I have genuine concern for their welfare," he said. "Countless times I have attended the hospital late at night or very early in the morning when our people are injured."
Chief Insp Dempsey said the officers did an amazing job in often very difficult and dangerous circumstances.
He said police were well-trained but often had to make snap decisions to protect the public, their peers and themselves, with only moments to decide a course of action.
These decisions were made often under duress, as police strived to quickly ensure no one was hurt, including the offender.
Snapping his fingers to emphasise the point, Insp Dempsey said others often looked at their actions in retrospect and asked why police took a certain path after reflecting on the situation for some time.
"Judges and the judiciary might look at the brief of evidence and critique every action a police officer has taken to look after themselves, their partner, the public and the offender," he said. "Police reaction is only in proportion to an offender's reaction."
At Byron Bay Police Station, Senior Constable David Kyle-Robinson emphasised that physical methods were always a last resort.
"No one here in 12 years has had any intentions of coming in saying 'let's knuckle on'," the 50-year-old said.
"We all come in saying, 'I hope it's a quiet night, people behave themselves, it rains and we don't get punched'."
But late on Christmas Day 2017, he and Senior Constable Mick Keough, 30, had a call to Byron Bay Lighthouse to attend a man whose friends said was threatening self-harm.
However, it wasn't a terrified would-be suicide they faced.
When they got there a Canadian visitor, Elios Poizot, appeared to be in the grip of a synthetic drug and went berserk and tried to bash and claw his way through their vehicle.
"I was sitting in the police van when this man, naked, off his head, cleared the car and headbutted the windscreen and opens up the door," he said.
The man was tasered and in the process Sen-Constable Keough got caught in the cords and was tasered himself.
"I'm 97kg trying to secure his arms and he's lifting me off the ground. Mick yelled to his mates, 'We don't want to hurt him, you'll have to help us,' and it took six of us trying to hold him down while I call for backup," he said.
"By then his mates were all worn out so it's just Mick and me holding him down while he was spitting and frothing with zombie eyes."
Sen-Constable Keough sustained a back injury during the incident, which he said was outside anything he had dealt with previously in nearly a decade on the force.
"Without hesitation we attend, as our first priority is to care for him," he said. "Without even speaking to him, he has (attempted to) jump through the windscreen and after that we are in a fight for our lives."
Sen-Constable Keough said it was a difficult situation and police actions were later scrutinised when people may not have the context of the situation.
"Our priority is to serve and protect the community," he said. "From this incident I injured my back and only just finished regular physio treatment. Like anyone I enjoy my days off, but you are nursing physical or mental injuries and can't kick the footy with the kids in the park."
Insp Dempsey drove the man to Tweed Heads for his bail hearing.
"On the way up he remembered everything that happened," Insp Dempsey said.
"He showed no remorse."
Poizot's efforts earned him a $1000 fine for malicious damage and two concurrent 12-month good behaviour bonds for his assault of officers.
It was a frightening situation for the man who, until then, thought he'd seen it all.
"In the nearly 12 years as a police officer I've been punched, kicked, spat on and bitten. It can be a contact sport," he said. "It's not personal, they only see the uniform."
Another incident at Byron Bay Courthouse involving synthetic drugs took 500kg of police, five men and one woman to secure one man.
In her 15 years of policing, Senior Constable Jo Turner, 36, had her worst injury when punched in the face in October.
"You go into any job and you know anything can happen. It's so unpredictable when you have drugs, alcohol and mental illness in the mix," she said.
"The worst part was having to explain to my three-year old I was hurt at work. I try not to be negative, this is the first time in 15 years it has happened and I try to be resilient."
Senior Constable Mick Chaffey, 49, at Brunswick Heads said he'd been attacked many times.
"I've been shot at, attacked with knives, glass, machete, stabbed with pens and bitten on the shoulder," he said.
"I've seen the job and community change and I don't like the attitude when people don't see the person beyond the uniform."
However, Sen-Constable Chaffey has confidence in the force. "We are going through a rough patch, but we will be right," he said.
In January, Senior Constable Ben Beach, 40, was attacked at 4am outside the Byron Bay Police Station by an intoxicated man he had earlier told to leave for offensive behaviour.
Unknown to Sen-Constable Beach, the man hung around and when the officer walked outside to place some items in a police car, he attacked.
"Without saying anything, he came up and punched me in the face," Sen-Constable Beach said.
"I managed to get him on the ground on the front steps and brought him through to the cells, where he was charged."
The constable's bruises may have healed but like his workmates, the scars remain.
"This is completely unacceptable," he said. "I've been a cop for 19 years and people need to know we are here to help them, not be a punching bag."
Like all his colleagues, their close-knit friendships based on mutual respect mean they look out for each other in good times and bad.
"My matter is pretty minor compared to Kylie and Jo, they have been through much more trauma."
Meanwhile, Supt Starling is determined to back his people to the full. He declined to discuss the Law Enforcement Conduct Commission's public hearing starting next week to investigate whether any NSW Police Force officer involved in an incident with a 16-year-old boy at Lateen Lane, Byron Bay, on January 11, engaged in serious misconduct.
"In the last six months, we have had (to deal with) 15 mentally ill people who have been aggressive," he said. "At the moment I have 30police that can't strap on a gun, 15 of those police have physical injuries and they come to work each day, many of them have slings, many of them broken bones and several have black eyes at different times," he said.
"That's the community they're policing at the moment. Unfortunately, I have concerns between now and retirement one of those police will not be going home to their families."