The police rostered for the suburban divisional van patrol were relaxed that Thursday afternoon, anticipating nothing more than a routine shift of burglaries, traffic offences and a few low-level assaults. Usually junior police crew "The Van", acting as first responders while the more experienced arrive only when things turn ugly.
But Northcote 303 was the exception, staffed as it was by two police with enough experience to have lost their rookie nerves and enough confidence to believe they could handle whatever came their way.
Sergeant Colin Dods (centre) and Senior Constable Richard Blundell (right) arrive at the inquest. Photo: Pat Scala
As long as he could remember, Senior Constable Richie Blundell wanted to be a policeman, and five years on the road hadn't blunted his enthusiasm. "That's all I ever wanted to do. As a kid I had a police uniform and mum couldn't get me out of it."
Leading Senior Constable Colin Dods' journey to the police academy was a more complex one. A music teacher at an exclusive private school and a former member of a jazz-fusion trio, he joined in 2000, aged 29, "to broaden my horizons". He soon found his teaching experience helped deal with juvenile offenders and victims.
It was December 11, 2008, when they reported for work. Both were keen enough to arrive an hour before their 3pm shift, to kit up and be ready to roll.
Tyler Cassidy with his mother Shani and two cousins.
Dods, the family man, spent the morning playing with his two little girls, while Blundell, the single guy, loitered in his favourite coffee shop, reading and drinking lattes.
Nearly 20 kilometres away a troubled teenager named Tyler Cassidy had just bought a slab of rum mixed drinks to share with his mates in an Eltham house. They would later say he was happy and up for a good time.
A few hours later the police and the teenager would meet in Northcote's All Nations Park, and within two minutes Cassidy was on the ground, fatally shot.
Despite a coronial finding that police acted in self-defence, there are those who maintain there had to be another way. The Human Rights Law Centre's strategic litigation director, Anna Brown, who has taken the case to the UN on behalf of Cassidy's mother, Shani, says: "Within 73 seconds of that first contact, he was lying dead on the ground. And 10 bullets had been discharged, and five bullets were in Tyler. I just have to ask the question: how could that happen?"
Chris Dane, QC, who represented the family at the inquest, says: "In an ideal situation one would have hoped that the most senior officer there would have taken command, rather than being sucked into the confrontation. The boy was being sucked in too but he was a 15-year-old disturbed child."
The police involved gave evidence at the inquest but have otherwise remained silent, hurt by public criticism, angered by claims of recklessness and still traumatised by the events of that balmy summer's night.
Now they have chosen to talk to the ABC documentary Trigger Point, which examines the recent history of police shootings in Victoria. What is clear is Dods and Blundell have replayed those 73 seconds virtually every day since, and always conclude they had no choice. This is their story.
Why Cassidy's mood soured by the time he returned home from his mates' place in Eltham will never be known. But when he headed to the nearby Northcote Plaza he was in a rage.
Northcote 303 had cleared a job when the call came through there was a man with a shotgun in nearby Blythe Street. The caller was Cassidy, who told the operator, "Shoot him dead, shoot him f---ing dead, you hear me? He is a psychopath, he's gone crazy, shoot him now." It was 9.18pm.
Blundell, who was behind the wheel, cruised into Blythe Street and saw people relaxing in a cafe. "We thought it was a prank," Dods says.
Then there were calls that a man with a knife was at the Northcote Plaza, including one from a Kmart staff member who saw the offender steal weapons from his store. Another police patrol, Preston 303, staffed by constables Nicole De Propertis and Antonia Ferrante, jumped on the air to say they would back up. A dog unit also declared it was on the way.
The two police vans started a slow patrol when the Northcote crew saw Cassidy on the perimeter of the park. "It was like he jumped out of the ground. He had seen us and wanted to confront us," Dods says.
Blundell says: "He seemingly came out of nowhere. There was this young man staring, leaning forward with his hands behind his back. He had a real sense of menace."
They saw a young man about their size, estimating his age at roughly 19 to 25 years. As they left the van Dods grabbed a large can of OC (capsicum) foam and Blundell unholstered his six-shot Smith & Wesson revolver.
"I demanded to see his hands," Dods says. "He produced two very large knives. I told him to drop them and his response was to move forward."
Once in range Dods sprayed foam to the side of Cassidy's face but instead of collapsing he ran into the adjoining park. The four police followed more like sheepdogs than a wolf pack. They didn't want to catch him but rather control his direction. Then he turned to face them. The four police were in a loose cordon with the crowded Northcote Plaza behind.
He was about seven metres away when Dods told him to drop the knives, "and no one needed to get hurt".
"He said, 'I'm going to f---ing kill you . . . you're going to have to have to shoot me'."
Then Cassidy took a phone call. Dods says he said: "The cops are here and someone is going to die."
Blundell says: "The young man was yelling at Dodsy, 'Shoot me, just f---ing shoot me', in a fairly ferocious tone. Dodsy used the foam again. It got him right in the face but he just seemed impervious to it.
"I had never seen anyone shake off OC foam as if it was water and it didn't seem to affect him at all."
Without access to a stun gun Dods says he "drew my firearm and he [Cassidy] began his nice, slow, metronomic advance towards me. Eventually I made it quite clear to him that if he kept advancing towards me he would be shot. He kept advancing and we kept retreating."
Dods' mind flashed to his training when an "offender" armed with a marker pen rushed him. The pen was used to mimic a knife. "Like everyone else I ended up covered in Texta marks."
At the academy the distance between the fake knife man and the policeman was seven metres. Now, as he backed into the darkened skate park, the real offender was just four metres away and closing.
"I thought a warning shot into the ground would bring him to his senses. I let one go into the ground and he barely flinched. He was clearly focused on a terrible outcome."
Police are trained to shoot at the body mass but Dods took a risk and decided to fire twice at his legs.
Yet Cassidy kept coming as Dods was backing up steps. "I thought I missed" (he hadn't).
Blundell saw the gap shrinking: "At that point I realised I would probably have to use my firearm. There was nothing else I could do and I had to protect Dodsy. I realised if I didn't do something, Dodsy was probably going to die.
"So I shot at him but nothing happened. Dodsy fired at him and nothing happened. Cassidy started walking up the stairs [leading to the skate bowl] and Dodsy was stuck against the guardrail at the top.
"All Cassidy had to do then was just lunge and we would have had a murdered police officer."
Dods had three shots left. "I backed up until I could feel my heel over the edge, Cassidy was still coming and I decided I just had to keep firing at this bloke's chest until he goes down."
After the third shot Cassidy collapsed. Within five minutes he was dead.
"It becomes a case of, well now it is either you or me and I have two little girls waiting for me at home. You have to draw a line on sympathy and empathy at some stage when the potential is I'm not going to get home."
Of the four police present, three fired in total 10 shots: Dods (six) Blundell (three) and De Propertis (one). Ferrante didn't fire because she feared hitting Dods.
When Blundell, filled with adrenaline and instant coffee, was allowed to go home the next day he "cried my arse off in the shower. People were rightfully focused on the tragedy that a young 15-year-old had died but to the media it seemed irrelevant that a good, honourable public servant almost died as well.
"[You] read some very nasty things about yourself and you want to say, 'No, that's not what happened'. But you can't."
The deepest trauma for Blundell is not the death of Cassidy but how close Dods was to being murdered. "When I fired that [last] shot I probably shouldn't have. At that stage in my line of sight there was no space between Tyler Cassidy and Dodsy. I thought I had to do it because I thought Dodsy was dead. He would have fallen into the skate bowl and Cassidy would have been on top of him and that was death." (The shot missed and hit a rail next to Dods.)
"His safety was my responsibility and I probably failed really. I've had a lot of trouble coming to terms with the fact that I almost shot Dodsy. The thing that haunts me the most is that I almost shot him and I wouldn't have been able to live with myself if I had."
Blundell remains a committed police officer but knows the death of Cassidy has changed him. "It becomes a pervasive force in your life and seeps into everything. You think about it all day every day, even years later. Sitting in a cafe you're thinking about it, you're thinking about it lying in bed at night, in the morning. You are playing over this thing in your head.
"I don't think . . . we could have done anything differently that would have resulted in a different outcome for Tyler Cassidy. It affects who you are. You become a bit darker, a bit more cynical, a little less happy, and a little less relaxed I suppose."
Dods' girls are growing up now and sometimes he thinks about what would have happened if that last shot hadn't stopped Cassidy and he hadn't come home. When he drifts off with a vacant stare, his wife doesn't need to ask where he has gone. He is back at the skate park, using different words or miracle tactics.
"I go over it every day. I don't have to be asleep to have this particular nightmare. I still can't think of what else we could have done to make him back down. Tyler Cassidy was a young man who didn't have the tools to cope with the situation he found himself in. If he had given us some time to establish that we wouldn't be sitting here [talking about it] today."
He says Cassidy refused to allow police to negotiate a different outcome. "Sometimes you don't run the jobs, sometimes the offender runs the job. He ran the show from beginning to end."
So why didn't they withdraw and wait for back-up? He says they couldn't allow him back into the shopping centre. "Our job is to protect the public, it is as simple as that. If something had happened to a member of the public, how do you ever sleep again?"
Dods thought of quitting the force but found the support of colleagues a valuable form of rehabilitation. Three years after the shooting the four police involved gave evidence at the inquest in the hope they could finally move on.
"There is no closure as I hoped there would be," Dods admits. "The fact remains that someone is dead by our hands, by my hand, and there is no changing that."
Trigger Point is on ABC1 at 9.30pm on June 8.