By Keiran Hardy

This spotlight was first published on The Conversation

A producer for YouTube comedian Friendlyjordies was recently arrested for allegedly stalking and intimidating NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro, following investigations by the Fixated Persons Investigations Unit (FPIU) of the NSW police.

This unit, set up in the wake of the Lindt café siege, was created to monitor extremists and fixated persons who may not fall under Australia’s counter-terrorism laws but nonetheless pose a risk of serious violence.

At the heart of this case will be the charges of intimidation and stalking, but it also will raise questions around what constitutes a “fixated person” and when the use of this unit is appropriate.

Two alleged incidents

Kristo Langker, 21, produces videos for the popular YouTube channel Friendlyjordies, run by Jordan Shanks. At the time of writing, the channel has around 500,000 subscribers.

Shanks has appeared in videos alleging wrongdoing by NSW Nationals leader Barilaro, which Barilaro has strenuously denied. Lawyers for Barilaro say Shanks defamed the deputy premier in a number of “vile and racist” videos. The NSW deputy premier is now suing Shanks (and Google) for defamation.

Langker was arrested at a home in Dulwich Hill, Sydney, on June 4. The charges relate to two alleged incidents.

According to a Guardian Australia news report, the first allegedly occurred at a Macquarie University politics in the pub event. Langker and Shanks (who was dressed as Luigi from Mario Brothers) approached Barilaro and shouted “Why are you suing us?”. According to police, as reported in the Guardian, Shanks then left but Lankger stayed, repeating the question and allegedly “tussling with several persons in an attempt to get close” to Barilaro.

The second alleged incident involved Langker filming and speaking to Barilaro as he returned to his car after the funeral of rugby league player Bob Fulton. According to the same Guardian report, Langker asked the NSW deputy premier again, “why are you suing my boss?”. According to the report, this second incident allegedly occurred hours before Langker’s arrest.

Based on these alleged incidents, Langker was arrested by the FPIU and charged with two counts of stalking and intimidation. The offence attracts a maximum penalty of five years imprisonment, where someone stalks or intimidates another person with intent to cause the person fear of physical or mental harm.

Langker has been released on bail under very strict conditions. He is even prohibited from possessing images or caricatures of the deputy premier, or “commenting on his appearance or behaviour”.

The Fixated Persons Investigations Unit

The FPIU was established in April 2017, shortly before the NSW coroner released his report into the Lindt café siege.

In announcing the new unit, NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller referred to people who are “obsessed about issues, ideals or individuals” and are “plotting acts of violence” or “capable of acts of terrorism”.

The unit comprises 17 detectives and government mental health workers. It is based on similar units established previously in the UK and Queensland.

The FPIU is a specialist unit that performs risk assessments of people with obsessions, grievances or ideologies that may lead to serious violence. It can access a suspect’s medical records to assess the level of risk they pose.

People monitored by the FPIU include a man who bombed a couple’s car following months of online abuse, and another who was charged with terrorism offences after threatening Sydney police with a knife.

The NSW coroner supported the unit’s creation, calling it a “commendable” step towards improving terrorism prevention. He believed there was a clear gap in the identification and management of “lone-actor terrorists or fixated individuals”, who could fall through the cracks despite repeated warning signs of violence.

In response to questions from The Conversation, NSW Police said the FPIU investigates “fixated persons”, which is defined as someone who

has an obsessive preoccupation, pursued to an excessive or irrational degree with:

  • a public office holder or internationally protected person, or
  • other person/s nominated by the commissioner of police, or
  • a cause influenced by an extreme ideology (a “cause” is an intensely personal and idiosyncratic grievance or quest for justice).

Police might argue Langker fits under the first of these grounds, if the content and conduct towards Barilaro could be classed as obsessive and excessive. Langker’s lawyers have argued Langker’s arrest and bail conditions “strike at the core of our democracy”.

At trial, the issue will be whether the charges of stalking and intimidation can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, but the case may also set a precedent about what is fixated behaviour and an appropriate use of the FPIU. If that bar is set too low, there will be a serious risk to free speech and democracy. Of course, everything will turn on the evidence at trial, so we should watch this case closely.