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Homeless man suffered fatal neck fracture during arrest for drunkenness, coroner hears

Arresting officer Sergeant Alasdair Farrell told the inquest he was still haunted by the man’s death but he believed that at all times he was looking out for Mr Taranto’s welfare while he appeared intoxicated and at times incoherent.

A police photo of the arrest scene in Box Hill.

A police photo of the arrest scene in Box Hill.Credit:Victoria Police

“Still believe in my heart of hearts I did the right thing,” Sergeant Farrell said.

Lindsay Spence, counsel assisting the coroner, told the inquest that after Mr Taranto’s divorce from his wife Joanne in 1995, he became estranged from his family and moved out of their Hopetoun Parade home, with no access to his three children.

Mr Spence said little was known about what the former brick worker did following his divorce, but in the two years before his death Mr Taranto was known by security officers to spend considerable time at Box Hill shopping centre, washing in the bathrooms, spending his days sitting in the food court and sleeping in the car park.

He said it was also not uncommon for Mr Taranto to be seen sitting intoxicated in Hopetoun Street.

Mr Spence said on November 14, 2017, police responded to a triple zero call about a man sitting on a brick fence in the street, smoking and drinking.

Sergeant Farrell said he arrived on scene within minutes and struck up a conversation with the 65-year-old about coins on the ground. When he was unable to establish the man’s identity, he placed him under arrest for being drunk in a public place.

“I advised him he was going to be arrested for drunk [and] he placed hands behind his back,” Sergeant Farrell said.

“I believe if I left him in the street he would continue to cause problems and be unable to look after himself.”

The inquest heard Mr Taranto was compliant during the arrest but, as the pair approached the police car, he turned away from the officer, tripping over Sergeant Farrell’s right leg and falling face-down onto the nature strip.

During the two-hour inquest, the arresting officer was repeatedly questioned about why he radioed back to dispatch using the phrase “I’ve had to cuff this bloke and put him down”, before later telling his superior officer: “He started to fire up and I put him on the ground.”

The nature strip where Mr Taranto was fatally injured during his arrest in November 2017.

The nature strip where Mr Taranto was fatally injured during his arrest in November 2017.Credit:Victoria Police

Sergeant Farrell said it was “police language” and not indicative of what actually occurred.

“If I had my time again, would I choose those words? The phrase I probably would’ve gone with is, we’ve gone to ground.”

Mr Taranto never regained consciousness and died at hospital the following day.

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In the witness box on Wednesday, Sergeant Farrell said it was impossible to know whether the outcome would have been different had two officers attended the scene.

“I tried to do the right thing and, barring the outcome, it was with good intent to try and help someone who at the time I believe was medically unwell,” he said.

“I have a duty not only as a police member but as a member of the public to provide some assistance and I think the public would expect me to do something.”

The court heard an autopsy on Mr Taranto found he had an undiagnosed and untreated medical condition, ankylosing spondylitis, that causes vertebrae to fuse, putting him at higher risk of spinal fracture.

The autopsy also found evidence of blunt head and neck trauma, front of head impact and spinal fractures, which led to a cardiac respiratory arrest.

Mr Taranto had a blood alcohol reading of 0.2.

Homicide squad investigator Detective Senior Sergeant Mark Colbert told the coroner the “widely common” issue of officers working alone at that time had since been addressed with sweeping policy changes and increased resources.

Monika Pekevska, counsel for the Chief Commissioner of Police, said the police force had found no evidence of force being used, labelling the arrest “legal”.

“It is impossible to say if this incident would have been any different if there had been two members,” she said. “It ought to be best described as a very tragic incident.”

Coroner Jacqui Hawkins will hand down her findings in coming weeks.

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