7 News / Tele: Memorial bench for Courtney Topic, who was shot dead by police

7 News: Parents raising mental health issues

Tele: Parents install memorial bench for Courtney Topic, who was shot dead by police

Courtney Topic was 22 and suffering a mental health issue when she was shot by police. As the investigator on the case it was a chastening experience for Gary Jubelin who stays in regular touch with the Topic family.

‘Make sure you hang out the washing’: This was the last communication Leesa Topic had with her daughter Courtney. It was written on a note she left in the kitchen of their West Hoxton Park home. Courtney, complied with her mother’s request and even used three pegs for the larger items. This brings a smile to her mother’s face because that is something she had taught her daughter.

Within hours of hanging out the family’s washing, Courtney Topic aged just 22, and who had never been in trouble was shot dead by police. A single bullet wound to the chest killed her. That was six years ago.

***

The situation which resulted in Courtney’s death escalated quickly after she had walked out of the family home carrying a large knife.

Members of the public contacted the police after seeing her walking along the road in a distressed state towards a Hungry Jacks store about 20 minutes away. Courtney walked into the store carrying the knife and purchased a drink. Courtney left the store without incident, a short time later police arrived.

Ron and Leesa Topic at the intersection of Hoxton Park Rd and Cowpasture Rd in Hoxton Park where their daughter Courtney was shot dead by police. A new bench has been installed near the intersection for people to sit and reflect. Picture: Toby Zerna.

They confronted Courtney and directed her to drop the knife, but she was unresponsive to their directions.

One of the officers then attempted to use a taser, which malfunctioned and had no effect. A second officer then sprayed Courtney with OS Spray, this appeared to agitate and confuse her. Courtney then headed in the direction of a third officer who, fearing for his life, fired the fatal shot.

Significantly from the time the police arrived to the time Courtney was shot took only 41 seconds.

Leesa was told her daughter was dead by three detectives. At that moment she knew her life was changed forever. One of the detectives said: “There has been a shooting incident, your daughter Courtney has been shot dead.”

***The Deputy State Coroner, Elizabeth Ryan in handing down her findings in July 2018 stated: “Courtney Topic died in the course of a police operation. Her death was by gunshot in circumstances in which she was very likely suffering a mental health crisis and was in a public place holding a knife.”

Courtney Topic was 22 when she was shot .

She would have turned 29 on February 27.

It seems to be such a dispassionate way to describe a young woman’s violent death on a grass verge at an intersection of a western Sydney suburb on a weekday morning. An incident like this in police speak is described as a ‘Critical Incident’

I was the homicide officer who led the investigation into Courtney’s death. I still remain in contact with Courtney’s parents and consider them friends.

We didn’t start off that way with Courtney’s father Ron, angrily asking me: “Why did you have to kill my beautiful little girl, did she have to be shot in the chest?”

How do you respond to a grieving father in those circumstances?

***

I vividly remember a couple of months after Courtney’s death getting a call one Sunday from a local police station after Courtney’s grandfather Bede complained the family had not heard from me.

I was mortified I had caused them more pain. I then attended their home. I informed them they had my number and could have called me anytime.

Their response rocked me. It made me realise how complacent I had become and how innocent they were.

I felt ashamed.

The Topic family were law-abiding citizens with minimal contact with police because they had never been in trouble. They didn’t think they had the right to contact a homicide inspector directly.

I apologised and we spoke for hours with the family members expressing their anger and frustrations about why Courtney was killed in such a violent manner. They were also concerned that police would cover-up any failings.

Last week, Leesa contacted me with a simple request. It was an invite to a service on Saturday, February 27 for the unveiling of a memorial bench and plaque for Courtney where she was killed.

They had been pushing this for some time. It was the family’s way of showing Courtney had not been forgotten. It was also about ensuring lessons learnt from the shortcomings in police training and practices when dealing with people suffering from mental health issues were addressed.

The Coroner identified a number of areas of policing that could be improved. In handing down her findings she stated: “Courtney’s death is emphatically not one where it can be said ‘This couldn’t have been prevented’. Her death raises broad issues about how police officers are trained to deal with people suffering from mental health issues.’

The Coroner further stated, “Sometimes the person they (police) face is in the grip of a mental health crisis, as Courtney was. Her inquest forces us to ask: are there ways of reducing the risk of using lethal force, without unduly compromising police officers’ safety? The conclusion I have reached is that there are.’

The Coroner handed down 10 recommendations dealing with mental health issues, together with the training and response police provide to those issues.

Courtney’s family are exceptional people and they have redirected their pain into something more positive. They want to ensure the lessons learnt from Courtney’s death are not forgotten.

Ron and Leesa even agreed to address new recruits at the NSW Police Academy about what happened to Courtney so there is a greater understanding of what they might be confronted with when they hit the streets.

They also appreciate the gesture by NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller who in 2020 took time to meet with them to inform them that nine of the 10 recommendations had been acted upon.

A memorial bench are a small way of ensuring Courtney’s death will not be forgotten. The memorial was unveiled on Saturday (Februay 27). If Courtney was still alive it would have been her 29th birthday.

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