Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this post contains images and names of deceased persons.
All images are not mine and have been sourced with where I found them.
To serve and protect, that is the role of our police force whether it be at a state or federal level. They are to uphold and enforce the laws of our country so as to keep our community safe and running smoothly. However, our ‘respected’ police officers are becoming judge, jury and executioner in the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. This is not new either; Australia has a long history of police brutality against Indigenous people, a history which the police and the government have somewhat successfully managed to cover up.
The Royal Commission
Violence against Indigenous people by our police force and jail guards was so bad it sparked a Royal Commission. Prime Minister Bob Hawke announced the formation of a Royal Commission in 1998 to investigate the deaths of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the country’s state and federal jails and police cells. They initially set out to examine forty-four cases however this grew to ninety-nine cases, all of which occurred between 1980 and 1989, the youngest victim was only 14 years old.
The Commission’s final report concluded that Aboriginal people didn’t die at a higher rate than non-Aboriginal people in custody but that the rate at which Aboriginal people are taken into custody is overwhelmingly different – this means that while we die at the same rate there are more Aboriginal people dying due to the difference in numbers.
The final report also included 339 recommendations such as:
- 87. Arrest people only when no other way exists for dealing with the problem
- 161. Police and prison officers should seek medical attention immediately if any doubt arises as to a detainee’s condition.
- 339. Initiate a formal process of reconciliation between Aboriginal people and the wider community (Source)
These recommendations are still valid today however the majority have yet to be implemented.
Since the Royal Commission
The bulk of these recommendations were never put into action and the majority of those what were implemented were only done partially. As a result, instead of the number of deaths in custody reducing they have continued to increase over the years.
As of August last year 407 Aboriginal people have died since the end of the royal commission into deaths in custody in 1991 and not only that but they are mostly dying from treatable medical conditions, and are much less likely than non-Indigenous people to receive the care they need.
Cases of violence and death
I’ve chosen to include a few cases of deaths that occurred in custody so you can understand how horrendous the circumstances are.
Ms Dhu is possibly one of the most well-known deaths in custody in recent times that the media were forced to present on due to the sheer force of the Aboriginal community. Ms Dhu was arrested 2nd of August 2014 after police were called to assist her. They arrested her instead after officers did a background check and they discovered she had many unpaid fines. Ms Dhu was in a domestic violence situation and did not have the means to pay the fines off. Ms Dhu complained of being in pain while in custody and begged to go to the hospital; she was taken to the health campus but was not treated as officers and some medical staff thought she was faking illness and coming down from drugs. Ms Dhu died on the 4th of August, 2014 after she went in to septic-shock due to pneumonia and septicaemia after an infection in her fractured ribs spread to her lungs.
Her death was avoidable and a direct result of the institutionalised racism that flourishes in the police force and health facilities in WA. (Source)
Kamilaroi man Mr Whittaker died of an unexplained head injury while in prison. Mr Whittaker was taken to Parklea prison in Sydney after being refused bail for minor charges and then to a hospital due to his injuries. His family were told many different stories as to what happened. First, they were told that he was found injured in the yard, and then that he was actually found injured in his cell. Mr Whittaker was shackled to his hospital bed despite being in a coma for two days and though family requested they be removed due to the fact he was in a coma the hospital staff refused. It is still unknown what happened as the police and corrective services continue to tell different stories. (Source)
Another death is that of Mr David Dungay. Mr Dungay, 26, died on December 29th, 2015, in Sydney’s Long Bay Prison Hospital after being forcibly moved to an observation cell, restrained face down and sedated. Mr Dungay, a diabetic, wouldn’t stop eating a packet of biscuits and so guards rushed to his cell, transferred him to another cell, restrained him face down on the floor and injected him with a sedative. Video played in court during the initial hearing showed Mr Dungay gasping for air and screaming, “I can’t breathe” at least 12 times while pinned to the ground, officers responded: “If you can talk you can breathe”, moments later he became non-responsive and was shortly pronounced dead. (Source)
The hearing into Mr Dungay’s death is still continuing.
Finally there is Ms Tanya Day. Ms Day died after sustaining a head injury in a cell at Castlemaine police station, where she was held after being arrested for public drunkenness.
On December 5th, Ms Day arrived at Echuca station, and bought a ticket to Melbourne for her journey by bus and train. At some point during the train journey to Melbourne she was approached by the train conductor who said she was “unruly”, her feet were blocking the aisle and that she was unable to produce a valid ticket. The police were called, who removed Ms Day from the train and she was arrested for public drunkenness and taken to Castlemaine police station.
Ms Day was detained in a police cell and assessed as “level three”, which requires detainees to be physically checked every 30 minutes. But this did not happen. And despite repeated falls in her cell no officers came to check on her. From 4.50pm, she became unable to use her right arm, at 6.40pm she rolled off the bench and lay on her back on the floor. When the first physical check was done at 8pm, police noticed a dark, oval-shaped bruise on her forehead, Ms Day was then taken by ambulance to Bendigo hospital, where it was established she had suffered a large bleed to the brain.
Tanya Day never woke up. A scan revealed a massive bleed in her brain and she was flown by helicopter to St Vincent’s Hospital in Melbourne, where she had emergency surgery to remove a section of her skull and relieve the pressure on her brain however seventeen days after Ms Day was arrested, her children had to made the hard decision to remove her medical support in the ICU.
This isn’t the first time Tanya’s family has had to suffer through the trauma of a death in custody. Ms Day’s uncle, Harrison Day also died in custody in 1982 from an epileptic fit after he was arrested for an unpaid $10 fine for public drunkenness.
It should be noted that one of the recommendations in the Royal Commision was that public drunkenness be decriminalised – an action all states except for Victoria and Queensland have put into place. (Source)
Violence against our children
It is not just Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults that are being killed and beaten but our children too. Our kids are being tortured in Australia’s juvenile system by those in power (Source). It was discovered children were subject to verbal and physical abuse, humiliation, they were denied access to basic human needs such as water, food and the use of toilets, they were dared or bribed to carry out degrading and humiliating acts and to commit acts of violence on one other. It was also discovered that youth justice officers would restrain children using force to their head and neck and that often isolation was used as a punishment inconsistent with the Youth Justice Act for the Northern Territory.
The abuse was so bad it even sparked a Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Youth in the Northern Territory which found that ‘the youth detention centres used during the relevant period were not fit for accommodating, let alone rehabilitating, children and young people’ and that ‘At times, youth justice officers deliberately withheld detainees’ access to basic human needs such as water, food and the use of toilets’, you can read the rest of the findings and recommendations here.
And of course there is the infamous Pinkenba Six. The ‘Pinkenba Six’ is a group of six Queensland policemen charged with the abduction of three Aboriginal boys in May 1994. The three boys, aged 12, 13, and 14, were ordered into a police car by the officers in Fortitude Valley, Brisbane. Each boy was driven in a separate patrol car to a swampy area in Pinkenba. The officers threatened to cut the boys fingers off, in order to get them to comply with their demands. The children were abandoned and their shoes were removed. They later retrieved their shoes and began to walk home. Police later admitted that the three young boys had not previously committed any crimes but were taken in order to deter them from committing any crimes or being a public nuisance. One of the Pinkenba Six, Mark Ellis, joined politics last year as part of the One Nation Party – a party known for its racist views of non-white people. (Source)
Our children are our future and if they continue to be treated like this at such a young age it will only hinder them in the future.
There are two patterns in Australia regarding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander deaths in custody.
The first pattern begins with the system failing to protect the vulnerable, causing death or serious injury to an Indigenous person. What follows is a lack of mainstream media attention and therefore a lack of public outrage which means that a person’s life is swept under the rug to simply become another statistic and everything stays the same.
The second pattern begins the same way but instead does make it onto mainstream media. It is then followed by mixed outrage from the whiter community – the majority become ashamed and angry that this abuse continues to be hidden while others become outraged that police officers and guards must face these allegations and believe that everything happening to these Aboriginal men, women and children is deserved simply because they are Aboriginal. Some even wish for our eradication openly on social media. After a week this, the mixed outrage dies down as something ‘more important’ becomes the new main story and once again these people who have been failed by the system become statistics and nothing is done.
For most of my childhood I used to want to be a police officer, I even have family who have served or are serving in the police and I love and respect them a lot, however this does not change my view that the police force as an institution is corrupt and racist. I recognised this even as a child but I thought I could change it from within however I now realise it is not possible to fix these systems from the inside because they are not broken they work exactly as they were designed to. The police and justice system have always been against Indigenous people and other people of colour and so they work perfectly.
These systems need to be abolished altogether and restructured into a system that focuses on rehabilitation rather than punishment and takes preventative measures rather than waiting for the problems to occur.
Until then the police will continue to hold power over who lives and who dies, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people will continue to die in alarming numbers. Something must be done and the systems must change if we are to move on as a nation and truly work towards ‘reconciliation’. All of the 339 recommendations from the original Royal Commission must be implemented to their full potential and reparations must be paid to the families of those who have been killed and traumatised by our so called ‘justice’ system and police officers.
We need to start properly punishing officers who do commit these crimes as criminals instead of allowing them to resign or simply reinstating them somewhere else – and they definitely should not be allowed to become our politicians.
It is time we looked at Aboriginal deaths in custody as the crisis it is and actively worked towards fixing it.