On 8 January 2009, innocent Paralowie man Steven Holder was assaulted in his own backyard by South Australia Police. The assault was unprovoked and wholly unjustified as at no stage was Holder ever suspected of committing a crime or under arrest.
The police officers were members of SAPOL’s tactical response unit, the so-called ‘STAR’ team, which has a long history of heavy-handed, thuggish behaviour.
On 3 August 2018, after a long battle for justice, a South Australian judge finally awarded Holder the sum of $135,185.90 in compensation.
Holder’s ordeal began during an unanounced visit by his half-brother, Kym Bean, who was at large and under surveillance by police. After Bean entered Holder’s Paralowie house, STAR force officers surrounded the premises. When Bean became aware police were outside, he fled the house through the back door but was promptly apprehended in the backyard.
Not satisfied with having apprehended and arrested their target, one of the officers then aggressively demanded that Holder exit the house, threatening to throw a ‘stun’ grenade into the house and drag him out if he did not comply.
Following their instructions, Holder exited the house backwards with his hands on his head. Whilst doing so, one of the officers suddenly swept Holder’s legs out from under him, causing him to drop to the ground.
Holder stated that while he was face down on the path an officer stomped on the back of his legs multiple times, that he was kicked in the head, a gun was held to his head and he was subsequently kicked in the ribs. The Court concluded one police officer stood on Holder’s knees and then forcefully stepped on the back of his legs more than once as he was being restrained. The Court accepted that his face may also have been pushed into the concrete by a boot or hand causing a facial injury.
“In the main,” said Judge Millsteed, “I am satisfied that the plaintiff gave a truthful and reliable account of the events that took place at his home on the night in question.”
Millsteed could not say the same for a number of the STAR team officers. He stated the three police officers in the backyard at the time of the incident “were unconvincing about important aspects of the incident.”
Millstead said he “was particularly unimpressed” by the evidence given by Acting Sergeant Ryan Bowman and Senior Constable Barry Phillips as to the directions that were given to Holder to leave the house, the manner in which he exited the house, the circumstances in which Bowman took him to the ground and their claims that they acted with lawful authority.
He said the evidence given by Bowen, Phillips and another STAR team officer, Senior Constable Mark Stanley, “was vague and unpersuasive.”
“I do not accept,” said Millsteed, “that the plaintiff acted aggressively and deliberately disobeyed the order in the manner suggested by Bowman and Phillips. I do not accept that he refused to get down on the ground and quickly walked towards Phillips in an aggressive manner demanding that the police leave. It is improbable that he would have deliberately disobeyed Phillips’ order in that manner and in circumstances where he was unarmed and confronted by three police officers at least two of whom, namely Stanley and Phillips, were pointing rifles at him.”
The whole ordeal was witnessed by Holder’s 13 year old daughter, who was understandably traumatized.
It should be noted that, the day after the incident, Holder’s family filed a complaint with the Police Complaints Authority. The complaint was ‘investigated’ and it was concluded there was insufficient evidence to substantiate any claim against the police officers despite his injuries and no criminal charges being filed against him. This case demonstrates individuals are entitled to bring action against police even after the the Police Complaints Authority claims there is ‘insufficient evidence.’