SECRETS OF A SNIPER
ONE OF OUR MOST DECORATED VETERANS TAKES US INSIDE THE SECRETIVE WORLD OF THE POLICE SNIPER AND WHAT IT MEANS TO HAVE LIVES DEPENDING ON YOUR TRIGGER FINGER, REPORTS CHARLES MIRANDA
IT was a scene straight from an action movie — three people already shot dead, the cops pinned down by a gunman and everything resting on a police sniper called Fingers.
Fingers was behind an electrical box with bullets from a 30.06-calibre semiautomatic rifle and a shotgun zinging above his ears, with the rest of his four-man team lying in the gutter being shot at and another dozen officers sheltering behind their squad cars.
He had had no time to get his “golf bag” of sniper kit including his scoped Mauser 86SR or Sako 85 bolt action, so had to rely on his Heckler & Koch MP5 sub machine gun, designed for close-quarters and with no scope sight, meaning he had to get to within 50m of his target.
He was only able to get to 55m before being shot at.
Now he has to estimate range, range speed, speed wind drag and point of aim as well as factor in a park filled with children nearby as well as a large crowd gathering from Westfield Burwood that has heard the sirens and gunfire.
His orders are “total incapacity”, which means a kill shot to the head and he decides he needs to aim about 30cm above the gunman to hit that target. Fingers has to block out the sirens, gunfire, screams, yells and the sound of children playing before squeezing the trigger — and not think about how this day was supposed to be very different.
THE WORLD OF THE SNIPER
The world of the sniper is not often seen outside of Hollywood.
But Fingers, one of Australia’s most experienced police marksmen with more than two decades on the tools, has agreed to take The Sunday Telegraph through this usually closed world.
He has had the “over watch” sniper’s role for three visiting US presidents, multiple members of the royal family and the Israeli Prime Minister, stopped multiple targets from Australia’s underbelly and received multiple awards.
He has effectively written the textbook in tactical policing but he doesn’t seek fame, just for people to get a better understanding of a marksman’s job.
FAST TRACK TO DANGER
Fingers was never into guns before he joined the NSW Police and got a .38 special police revolver.
He was a uniformed officer in the Liverpool area, before joining the legendary 21 Division, a flying squad for highend criminals and major incidents.
His abilities were noticed and he was put in the Police Tactical T ti lG Group, an Australia-wide elite police group designed to combat high-risk incidents that today is a cornerstone to the federal government’s National Counter Terrorism Plan.
They have to pass rigorous training with the Special Air Service before they become a Yellow Back or Tarmac Lizard, the nickname for snipers.
Fingers not only spent time with the SAS but with New Zealand’s Special Tactics Group and learned how to deal with chemical, biological radiological, nuclear and explosive (known as CBRNE) incidents in Canada.
“It was hard shit,” Fingers recalled. “The course went for a bit over three and a half weeks, night and day, we were at their mercy.”
It wasn’t long before Fingers was taking the Sierra 1 call sign, the senior sniping lead on the ground.
“It’s not just a point, squeeze and shoot,” he said.
“You’ve got to be a marksman, but you have also got to be a planner, you have to be able to deploy your teams.
“The sniper has two roles, intelligence gathering and the second one is the ... ballistic intervention.”
The intelligence gathering is a primary role, looking through a scope or binoculars for hours upon hours to study movement and patterns of targets.
“I’ve looked down sniper’s scopes for years and you come to recognise fear and anxiety on people’s faces,” Fingers said. “More so, you come to recognise when you see their hopes are failing, you can see it and you also see: ‘When are you going to help me?’ on their faces, as if they know someone is watching.
“Looking at close range through the scope at their faces and they are quietly calling out for help, I contemplate my own headspace … ‘the time is not right, time not right’, but I
can’t tell them that even.
“You have got to keep control until that line in the sand is drawn, until it is justified.”
THE FATEFUL MOMENT
That Burwood day on August 26, 1993 was not like a normal siege or high-risk arrest with three already dead and potentially more to come unless the madman was stopped.
Fingers had to look at his “two catches”. First catch is the target and a clean hit, second catch is the background, and you can’t engage unless he is in a firing line because the second catch could be one of those innocent bystanders at Westfield.
The armed man ran into the firing line and Fingers thought quickly about his justification before squeezing his trigger.
“You have to have that justification, that justification was lying in the gutters next to me, those cops being shot at and three dead people, no dramas that’s my justification, I crack a round. Waiting, his hand goes down his leg but he keeps walking till he gets to a post looks at his hand and there’s blood.”
The headshot missed but the bullet hit his body and he dropped.
“I never took my work home, my then wife knew where I worked, she had a little bit of an understanding of what I did and where I worked,” he said.
“Looking back I regret a bit, not because of being in the cops or an environment where you work among tragedy or badness, but because you don’t get many moments where you go home and talk to your partners.
“To go home and say, ‘I did this and that today’ in terms of sniping, you know something would go over their heads and is best left at work, and I did that.
“In terms of social life around sniping … August 26 was my brother’s birthday.
“That night I was planning on a dinner together, but I had just shot someone and I had to go home that night and play it all out.
“I had to think, ‘That’s behind me … that’s compartmentalised now go out and enjoy my brother’s birthday with the rest of my family’.
“It’s a big leap to go from one to the other.
“I could sit there and enjoy myself, but at the back of my headspace is: ‘This is what I did, it was justified. I know I have to go and be interviewed tomorrow about this, about why I did things, I know that is going to happen and I’m happy’.
“Could I have done it another way because ultimately the question was, ‘Could there have been an alternative to lethal force?’
“In this case, there was no alternative, containment negotiation was not going to work with this bloke.”
You have got to keep control until that line in the sand is dra wn, until it is justif ied
POLICE SNIPER ‘FINGER S’
Police snipers in full camouflage gear head into the bush.
Fingers and members of his squad in training and (right) Fingers today, an expert sniper who kept an eye on the Bill Clinton visit in 1996. Main picture: Sam Ruttyn
Bill Clinton in Sydney.