Police Brutality and Deaths in Custody, the Violent Truth

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.


Image: Protester holds sign saying ‘Black Lives Matter (Source)

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.


Image: Protesters hold sign out front Parliament house (Source)

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)


Image: Ms Carol Roe, Ms Dhu’s grandmother, has been advocating for justice for her granddaughter since 2014. (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.


Image: David Dungay’s mother Leetona outside the Downing Centre court in Sydney. (source)

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.


Image: Inside a cell in Don Dale youth detention centre (Source)

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.

Media’s Response

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.


Image: protesters march against Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (Source)

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.


Logging our Native Forests destroys the future of our Country

This piece was written a few months ago after I and my family visited some logging coups as part of a news report for ABC.

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I’ve sat down multiple times in an attempt to put my thoughts on to paper, I’m lacking the energy I normally need to write. If I’m being honest, this weekend really drained me. It drained me physically, it drained me emotionally but most of all it drained me spiritually. Despite this feeling I am sitting here on my couch willing myself to write, to tell the stories of the forests, of the birds, of the possums and of my Country, because the hidden horrors that our state Government is allowing must be made known and the Victorian public need to understand that if we lose our trees and our forests, we will also lose our lives.

So you can fully understand everything that has taken place, I’ll take you back to when I found out about what was happening. It was late on a Thursday night when I received a message from my cousin in a family group chat. An old-growth forest near Tooalangi was being illegally logged and the Victorian Government was choosing to look the other way. Our forests were being cut down, our native wildlife were losing their homes and their lives, and our own quality of life would also continue to worsen if we did not try to stop it.

So we decided to make the trip to help in any way we could.

We arrived at the Strathvea Guest House on the Saturday. We settled into our cabins then headed out to the forests where we were filmed painting up and dancing under giant Mountain Ash trees. It was a surreal experience! The trees were so big and I found it hard to focus as I was so in awe of their beauty.

The following day we met up with the ABC film crew and followed them out to the logging coupe. It was a devastating site and we were all shocked at the scale of destruction to the forest. We spent a few minutes really taking it in and there was a heaviness in the air as we made our way up to the site through the churned-up dirt and burnt out stumps. The worst part was the silence: it was as if someone had flipped a switch and suddenly all the natural noises of the forests had just stopped. We could not hear the wind or the birds, and it only added to the feeling of loss. We danced with dead leaves for the ABC news report that would air later that night, but we also danced to show our Ancestors that we would fight and that we would protect the land as it had protected us for generations.

Going home that night was hard. It was hard because I knew that it was just the beginning of a long battle. But I knew that I had to fight, to honour those who had fought before me and to protect those who would come after.

In-case you are unaware of what native forest logging is and what consequences it has for the future of Victoria I’ll give you a quick rundown.

Native forest logging is the logging of state parks (public land). Vic Forests is the state Government’s logging company and they designate areas known as coupes for logging. It is industrial clear-felling – every tree and plant is flattened and removed and whatever is left over is burnt.

This may not seem like an issue however playing god with nature never ends well and the logging of our native forests will cause severe problems for Victoria’s future such as loss of wildlife, loss and contamination of water, increased fire risks and more carbon emissions [Source: Protect our Forests factsheet]

Logging disrupts the way our land and earth naturally grows and changes. Before colonisation, Aboriginal people had ways of land management that did not disrupt that natural course that nature should take. We took care of the land for 65,000+ years. We made it through environmental disasters without being wiped out because we made sure that the land was able to do as it needed with a little bit of guidance from those who knew how the land worked.

That ideal has been thrown completely out the window as greed has taken over the minds of those in charge. Those who log now do not do so in the hope of making our environment better or with the belief that they are protecting the land, they do so because capitalism has become so ingrained in us that everything we do must be in the pursuit of money and wealth – even if that means destroying our country in the process.

As I mentioned before, logging will lead to more severe fires as the new regrowth burns quicker than old trees, due to them being thin and densely packed (after logging they will often have helicopters drop water and disperse seeds to try and have the trees grow back as quickly as possible).

Mountain Ash and Alpine Ash forests provide Melbourne with nearly all of its drinking water. Unfortunately, these are the forests most affected by logging. This means that despite our need for increased water supply to Melbourne as its population increases, our supply will continue to drop – a dangerous reality for our children and grandchildren.

In autumn, VicForests (the state Government’s logging company) lights intense logging burns to clear whatever “waste” is left after logging. Huge amounts of smoke cover the state and we are told that it is from regulated burns to reduce the dangers of bush fires when in reality it is an aftermath of the logging. The Smoke from the burns reached such dangerous levels this autumn that the EPA had issued health alerts.

The Victorian government has freely handed over 1.82 million hectares of previously public land (state forests) to VicForests and they have gone out of these boundaries many times. Every day, land the size of 5 MCGs is logged- yes, you read that correctly, I said EVERY SINGLE DAY! It is predicted that by 2030 if things continue at this rate, that there will be nothing left to log as our forests will be gone [Source: The Greens’ Timber & Paper Industry Transition Plan]

Our ecosystem is collapsing, as our wildlife become endangered and their habitat is lost. In Victoria there are 79 forest-dependent species of which about 35 may be negatively impacted by timber harvesting [Source: Transcript] . One of these species is Victoria’s faunal emblem the Leadbeater Possum which was listed as critically endangered in 2015. Also known as the Fairy possum, it is only found in the highlands of Victoria’s native forests like Toolangi state park. As a result of the 2009 bushfires they lost 45% of their habitat and their population reduced to 1500 in the wild making them critically endangered. For the Leadbeater Possum to even have a chance at survival logging in their native forests must cease completely.

If the environmental catastrophe isn’t enough to convince you though, let’s re-examine at this situation as taxpayers.

Our forest supply is running out, and so the state Government bought Victoria’s largest native forest sawmill. To do this, along with the cost of keeping it running, the government spent $61 million TAX PAYER DOLLARS. That is YOUR money being spent to destroy our land. We do not even keep the majority of products that come out of logging Victoria’s native forests: the vast majority is sold to overseas companies with only 2-4% ending up back in our homes.

So, what is our alternative? The best alternative to logging native forests is commercial plantations. They provide more jobs than the native forest logging operations and are can continue on for as long as they are needed. Native forests have end dates, they take hundreds of years to grow and develop and at the current rate will not be around for much longer, plantations however, can continue to provide jobs consistently. Not only that but plantations would employ more workers than the current native forest logging operations do as Softwood plantations employ about three times as many employees per hectare compared with native forest logging operations and hardwood plantations employ about the same number per hectare as native forest logging operations. Plantations are the key to a better future that helps our environment and ecosystem.

The state Government does not care about Country, it does not care about the sacredness of our land and wildlife. We as Aboriginal people do understand this. The Land is our spirit, our Culture, our connection, it is our Mother and it is our home. Without her we are nothing.

The Victorian public can no longer be silent, we can no longer stand by and watch as our land and our futures are devastated on this unprecedented scale/torn apart. It is time to be forceful, it is time to be radical and to fight for the land the Government continues to destroy.

This land always was and always will be Aboriginal Land – it is time the Government remember that.