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Pursuit of Aboriginal man ‘should never have happened’

There were emotional scenes outside of court on Friday as family and friends of Raymond Noel, including his mother and father, conducted a smoking ceremony before the hearing began, their grief evident.

Raymond Noel was killed in a high-speed pursuit in a 50km/h residential street in Northcote after picking up some chocolate from a supermarket in Preston.

He had committed no crime before the pursuit, rather, he was driving an unregistered Holden Commodore with interstate plates that to highway patrol officers, looked “dodgy”.

The officers told the court the Commodore then “booted it”, or sped up, and they turned their lights and sirens on and initiated a pursuit.

Twenty-one seconds later, one of the officers made a call over police radio: “He’s come to grief … he’s come to grief.”

Raymond Noel’s mother Debbie Thomas grieves for her son outside the court on Friday.

Raymond Noel’s mother Debbie Thomas grieves for her son outside the court on Friday.Credit:Jason South

Counsel assisting the coroner Michael Rivette said Raymond Noel crossed onto the wrong side of the road on Victoria Street to avoid a taxi, before swerving to avoid a head-on collision with another car. He lost control of his car and was killed.

No one else was injured.

Mr Rivette said the actions of police altered the behaviour of Raymond Noel and the manner in which he was driving.

“It is open for your honour to find on the evidence that the pursuit should not have been commenced at all,” Mr Rivette said.

Raymond Noel’s mother, Debbie Thomas, and his father, Raymond Thomas.

Raymond Noel’s mother, Debbie Thomas, and his father, Raymond Thomas.Credit:Jason South

Victoria Police’s vexed pursuit policy, which has been subjected to numerous inquiries including after the Bourke Street tragedy, is again under scrutiny as part of the inquest.

Mr Rivette asked Mr Olle to reinstate a key recommendation he made in 2015, that minor traffic and property offences are not grounds to initiate a pursuit, which had been scrapped by Victoria Police in 2016.

Mr Rivette also recommended the policy include questions police should ask themselves including why they were pursuing in the first place, and whether their conduct might contribute to the behaviour of the driver they were chasing.

He said training was “gravely inadequate” and called on more practical training to occur.

Lawyer for Victoria Police Ron Gipp cautioned Coroner Olle against introducing prescriptions in the policy, echoing evidence from police command to the inquest into the Bourke Street tragedy.

“You must teach the members skills to make appropriate judgements. You don’t do that by prescriptions,” Mr Gipp said.

Mr Gipp said the highway patrol officers who pursued Raymond Noel, Sergeant John Sybenga and Senior Constable Debra McFarlan, adhered to the pursuit policy.

Mr Gipp said the pursuit was justified because the Commodore was being driven in a reckless and dangerous manner, colliding with a parked car, before speeding off.

But lawyers for the family, including from the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service, said that Raymond Noel would not have sped up if he wasn’t being pursued.

His father, Raymond Thomas, told the court about an interaction his son had with police when he was 10 or 11-years-old.

On holidays in country Victoria, Raymond Noel and his cousins were playing on a woodchip pile when two officers came along.

His cousins ran off, but Raymond Thomas and his brothers were apprehended and handcuffed.

Mr Thomas said police told the boys: “If you move, I’ll shoot ya”.

It was a lesson learned, Mr Thomas said, in how serious an interaction with police can get.

The family’s lawyer, Tony Trood, said Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people were disproprtionately impacted by pursuits.

“Sadly there are many Aboriginal people who bear the scars…of adverse interactions with authorities, including police, in their past and in their present,” Mr Trood said.

Raymond Noel’s mother, Debbie Thomas, said she wanted people to know how much her son was loved.

“Every day I could hear his laughter and non-stop talking about everyone. Always Raymond at the toaster, tea, coffee, breakfast. It was the happiest times of our lives,” Ms Thomas said.

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