Up to 50 Australians with mental illness or concerning behaviour are being assessed for a new police unit targeting would-be lone wolf extremists before they commit a terrorist act.
The fixated persons investigations unit, unveiled on Wednesday, is one of newly appointed NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller’s first initiatives.
Comprising 17 detectives and government mental health workers, it will perform risk assessments on so-called lone actors or unstable people who are seemingly fixated on issues or individuals but are not considered persons of interest for counter-terrorism police.
“We know these people aren’t active counter-terrorism targets yet they are capable of acts of terrorism,” Mr Fuller said. “[We] believe we need to move quickly to close this gap.”
People could be referred to the unit by family, neighbours, counter-terrorism authorities or local police, who often know of concerning locals but are limited in how they can deal with them.
The unit might respond by sending an officer to speak to the person, drawing up a mental health plan or forwarding the case to the counter-terrorism unit.
“I’m not suggesting that, if you call, we’re going to kick your door down,” Mr Fuller said.
“What I do want to give is give the community a pathway to contact someone if they’ve got concerns about a family member, a friend or a neighbour because at the moment people don’t see them as terrorists but they are committing terrorist activities.”
Mr Fuller said about 50 people were being assessed for the unit.
Among them are Joseph Mekhael, a DJ arrested on Anzac Day for shouting anti-war slogans during the minute’s silence in Martin Place.
On his Facebook page, he claims to lead the “Save The World Army” and calls on followers to “have the courage to stand up against those who are enslaving the human race!”
Lindt Cafe gunman Man Monis would also fit the unit’s brief as would John Caddle, a mentally ill man who drove his car through a Wollongong mall in February in a mock terrorist act that he hoped would prove other terrorist events were “fake news”.
Monis was a long-standing public nuisance who taunted politicians and bombarded families of Diggers with anti-war letters, but counter-terrorism police had closed his case file.
Mr Fuller said the metropolitan robbery unit would be disbanded and its detectives, who have 10 years’ experience in “profiling” people, would start work on Monday.
He acknowledged that the link between mental health and Islamic State-inspired attacks was contentious and said the initiative was not intended to excuse or play down violent acts.
Muslim youth worker Kuranda Seyit, director of the Forum on Australia’s Islamic Relations, feared the unit would end up mining health professionals for any Muslim mental health patients.
“We need to carefully consider where we’re going with this….because there is the danger of stigmatising not just people with mental illness but also Muslims,” he said.
The unit is modelled on the Fixated Threat Assessment Centres in Britain and Queensland that have a joint police-mental health approach.
Police Minister Troy Grant said it also built on ideas from the FBI’s bystander work, which recognises that, in the aftermath of an incident, it often emerges that somebody knew or saw something but didn’t have the understanding or the means to report it.
Mr Fuller denied it was an attempt to pre-empt negative findings from the Lindt Cafe inquest.
Greens MP David Shoebridge said the initiative would struggle to succeed because trust had not been established.
“The missing link in the NSW Police Force’s terrorism response is the connection with vulnerable communities; it’s not a resourcing issue but a cultural one,” he said. “The spate of highly armed and high visibility police raids in western Sydney that end with televised arrests of members of the Muslim community destroy hard-fought links with the community.”
FIXATED PERSONS: The type of people the new police unit wants to look at
Ihsas Khan, 23: Years of odd behaviour, including cutting down Australian flags on a neighbour’s home, culminated in the alleged Islamic State-inspired stabbing of neighbour Wayne Greenhalgh.
A 18-year-old man from Narwee: Arrested in the Opera House forecourt last year allegedly carrying canisters of brake fluid on the “instructions of Islamic State”. He has an intellectual disability but was charged after his behaviour escalated.
Alo-Bridget Namoa, 19: Allegedly wanted to do an “Islamic Bonnie and Clyde” with her husband but suffers schizophrenia and hallucinations and became obsessed with watching beheading videos, a court heard.
A 17-year-old boy from The Oaks: Allegedly threatened to carry out a mass stabbing in the wake of the Orlando nightclub shooting. Charges downgraded after severe mental health and developmental issues emerged.