Law & justice

Aboriginal-police relations

The relationship between Aboriginal people and police in Australia is tense. Harsh treatment, inappropriate behaviour and seemingly excessive sentences are the most common issues.

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Selected statistics

7%
Chance of the public of having a complaint against police upheld. Chances are even less if it is related to physical force [1].
0
Number of complaints made about excessive physical force which were upheld between 2007 and 2010 [1].
21
Days within which police aims to resolve minor complaints. Serious complaints: 180 days. Percentage of cases that reached that standard in 2010-11: 6% [1].
50%
Proportion of move-on-notices issued to Aboriginal people in WA by police [27]. Aboriginal population proportion in WA: 3.8%.

Heavy-handed police

There are numerous examples where police heavy-hands an incident involving Aboriginal people. Officers going too far are rarely brought to trial and often covered by their colleagues.

NSW State Coroner Mary Jerram was compelled in one of her reports to point out that police “do not have a licence to act recklessly, carelessly or dangerously or with excessive force”. Such behaviour constitutes “an abuse of police powers” [18].

In one case, Aboriginal people were hunting in an unfenced area in Western Australia. Under the Land Administration Act, traditional landowners are allowed hunting and other cultural pursuits on certain pastoral leases that have embraced their lands. While most station owners are respectful of these rights, in this particular case station staff alerted the police who dispatched two cars, intercepted the group and allegedly “eye-balled” elders and showed “immature behaviour” [3].

Police have been overheard using extremely coarse language towards Aboriginal youth. “Shut up, motherfuckers. Get on the ground, motherfuckers. Hey don’t move or we’ll shoot you with the gun. Stop crawling away or I’ll shoot you with the gun. Shut up, you want to die?”—This is what police officers said to two 14-year-old boys after they had chased them and stopped their car. [33]

A bare-chested teenager sits bound and hooded in a chair.A teenager has been restrained and hooded in Don Dale detention centre, Northern Territory. The United Nations considers such practices an act of torture. Image: Four Corners, ABC

Offences are often trivial

Police arrest Aboriginal people for incredibly trivial offences such as swearing. Even if no charges are laid, Aboriginal people’s relationship with police can be broken. “Now I see that officer when I go into town and I’m scared he is going to arrest me, there’s a real tension there. I don’t feel comfortable going into [town] any more”, says Robyne Churnside who had been arrested for swearing by that officer [16].

When Aboriginal people in the remote community of Borroloola collected Christmas hampers that contained alcohol (which is forbidden outside town), police could have informed Aboriginal people at the depot where they collected the hamper that they couldn’t take any alcohol back to their homes. Instead, they called in reinforcements from Katherine, 670 kilometres away, and waited until Aboriginal people brought their Christmas hampers into the Prescribed Areas and then conducted a “detection and seizure operation” where they not only seized alcohol, but also cars [22].

I’m not sure what damage a thrown sock can do to you, but an Aboriginal man in Meekathara, Western Australia, who was ordered to remove his shoes and socks in the street was seconds later charged with assault when he threw one of his socks at police. [33]

Police harass children

Police coerce kids to react—and know they’re wrong. Michael Anderson, Aboriginal leader of the Euahlayi people in NSW, has experienced it first-hand.

“In towns like Walgett, Brewarrina, Bourke, etc police blatantly target our kids and pull them up for what some of the kids say is nothing, and then antagonise them by making accusations, causing the kids to react, which in most cases results in them being charged with minor misdemeanours. These kids have told me personally that the first thing the police ask for is their mobile phones in order to prevent the kids from recording them.” [19]

Wiradjuri elder Ray Jackson knows the relationship between police and indigenous people has always been one fraught with racism, particularly the young.

“Police profile Aboriginal people and target Aboriginal kids from a very young age. They are harassed, abused, physically and morally, by the police and it hardens them up. It’s a self-fulfilling prophesy by police, that Aboriginal people are all criminals,” he says [30].

In one case Western Australian police officers abandoned two 14-year-old Aboriginal boys up to 3km outside town after picking them up following a “disturbance”, rather than returning them to their homes. [33]

In another incident, police dragged an Aboriginal university student off a bus “for questioning” because “someone fitting his description” had been seen “looking into cars”. Only the prospect of lawyers getting involved made police back up. “And people wonder why Indigenous Australians despise cops,” summarises the student’s mother her experience. [36]

Such behaviour has already found its way into arts. Aboriginal artist Tony Albert’s work We Can Be Heroes 2013-14 comes from the “daily experience” of Aboriginal boys “being followed” and “watched” by police, feeling as if they were “walking targets for bullies, racists and the police” [29]. The work shows the portraits of 20 young men with bullseyes painted on their bare chests.

A teenager lies naked on the floor of his cell, his neck held down by a prison guard.Randomly stripped naked. Moments before this teen was pacing his cell. Then three guards entered, pinned him to the ground and stripped him naked (Don Dale detention centre, Northern Territory).  Image: Four Corners, ABC

“The cops don’t care”

In Western Australia, Aboriginal people are fed up with the behaviour of police. Marianne Mackay is a Whadjuk woman and Aboriginal deaths in custody campaigner. She says that “in Western Australia, we live under a dictatorship. [Ours] is a racist police force, which is dictated to by the government. The police force is not here for the people, they’re here to protect those above us and that’s not right. They are public servants, they should start acting like it.” [4].

When Michelle Jarrett reported her niece Evelyn missing, the local policeman refused help because his shift was about to end. In another case in the same town, police also dismissed concerns, telling a mother that her missing daughter might have gone walkabout. [35]

Even police officials speak of “the well known animosity between Aboriginal people and police”. [35]

No wonder Aboriginal people become suspicious of police. Mistrust has been seeded ever since the Stolen Generations and the deaths in custody.

“The cops don’t care,” says Aboriginal filmmaker Ivan Sen [26]. “There’s a lack of connection. That’s something that, in my opinion, has been handed down from the Myall Creek Massacre.

“Because of all the social problems around Indigenous people, they spend all their time locking blackfellas up. So when they come to them for help, there’s a reluctance. It’s like, ‘Don’t come to me asking for help, I’m trying to find your brother to throw him in jail’.”

We have to get rid of racist cops. I don’t want to dwell on the past but I have grown up bitter.—Ben Taylor, Whadjuk Noongar Elder [25]

One event, two different views—who’s right?

A reoccurring issue between Aboriginal people and the police is the different view of their ‘interaction’. Here are two views of the same protest which took place in July 2011 at a site proposed for a gas hub near Broome [2].

Treated like feral animals

A protester said police have been “extraordinarily heavy-handed”. “They were bloody terrifying, they basically treated us [Aboriginal protesters] like feral animals.”

With respect and care

Western Australia Premier Colin Barnett noted that “when some resisted they were forcibly removed but they were treated with respect and care.” Mr Barnett had not been present during the protests.

No government trial, pilot scheme or merely a wish-list will ever succeed, because the police will not allow it to happen if it even remotely threatens their power bases.—Ray Jackson, President, Indigenous Social Justice Association [5]

Police laughed on the night he died—witness

A man arrested with Aboriginal man Terrance Briscoe says he, Mr Briscoe and three other men who had been arrested for drunkenness were in a room with 4 police officers on 4 January 2012 when Mr Briscoe refused to give his name.

After becoming agitated, Mr Briscoe swung his fist at one of the officers. Although he was drunk and the swing only half-hearted, the policeman pushed Mr Briscoe hard on to the ground hand held him face down and sat on his back while other officers put their feet on him, the witness old media.

While on the ground, Mr Briscoe struggled to breathe and began to bleed.

“They were really rough, and they were laughing at the same time,” the witness said. “They were making a mockery out of him.”

Mr Briscoe was found unconscious just after 2am the same night and died in a hospital the next day [6].

Taser use: “Mr Spratt was screaming constantly”

Aboriginal man Kevin Spratt was tasered 13 times while up to 9 officers surrounded him. CCTV footage showed the unarmed and subdued man screaming constantly.

A week later, while imprisoned, Mr Spratt was tasered again multiple times when officers tried to “extract” him from his cell.

No officers were charged over the incident, despite a police internal inquiry finding that two officers had used undue and excessive force.

Mr Spratt suffered fractured ribs, a collapsed lung, a fracture of the humerus and a dislocated shoulder. [7]

In another incident an Aboriginal man was tasered while kneeling in his lounge room with his hands behind his head.

While the officer involved told the court that he used the taser because he feared for himself and two colleagues, the court ruled that police had used “excessive force” and breached police “standard operating procedures” [8]. It dismissed all charges against the man.

Here’s a short news reel showing video footage of the incident (includes transcript).

More than 20% of police taser deployments were against Aboriginal people [9][10], and 40% of all taser use involved multiple or prolonged tasering which is more likely to cause damage to a person’s health. Queensland police taser about 30 persons each month [10].

However, 67% of assault situations on police could be resolved peacefully after showing a taser [9].

The police taser policy has changed since the incident, and its use is only permitted when there is an imminent risk of serious harm [11].

Others were not so lucky. In 2004 Cameron Mulrunji Doomadgee died after an attack by police officer Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley. Cameron’s offence: being drunk and swearing at police.

The very thought of police and the brutality of their enforcement and their arm send absolute shivers of fear up the spines of Aboriginal people.—Robert Eggington, Nyoongar leader [13]

Here is another case of excessive tasering by police of a 14-year-old Aboriginal youth.

Not a single conviction

There are many instances where police behaviour is questionable. If victims call for an investigation it is usually police investigating police, like in the case of Cameron Mulrunji Doomadgee.

Calls for investigation are not limited to cases involving Aboriginal people. The media are littered with cases where officers were exonerated, commended or promoted after questionable behaviour [17][32]. During court proceedings police officers mislead the public or collude in their version of events.

For example, during a prosecution in 2012, four Senior Constables said a man assaulted one of them at the police station by punching the officer in the face. But CCTV footage showed the punch never happened—instead, the officers forced the man to the ground before one kicked him in the head and another kneed him in the side of his torso [20].

An inquiry found the officers had shared their accounts of the incident before submitting them, a practice that had been taught by more senior officers [21].

In May 2014 Elijah Holcombe suffered from a mental episode and was killed by a police officer who panicked and shot him. The event was investigated by other police who found that the officer did not have a legal case to answer.

But when the matter was taken to a coronal inquest the coroner found that the police involved had lied and that the investigating police had fabricated evidence to exonerate the officer who had shot Elijah [28].

Policing is far from flawless. A former respected police officer identified “unreasonable use of force, failure to investigate, unreasonable conduct, victimisation and misuse of authority” among others as issues affecting policing [23]. Police are also accused to compromise or destroy crime scene evidence [24].

John McKenzie, chief legal officer with the Aboriginal Legal Service of NSW/ACT, calls for an independent investigative body in such cases. “The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody called for such a body and it still hasn’t happened in any state or territory,” he says [14].

McKenzie says the frequent contact between Aboriginal people and police makes incorrect police behaviour an “ever-present issue” within communities.

Not a single police officer in any criminal jurisdiction in the Commonwealth has ever been convicted of any offence relating to an Aboriginal death in custody.—Sam Watson Snr, Aboriginal rights campaigner [12]

Landmark Federal Court decision finds police acted racist

It is rare for police to be disciplined. In 2015, Lex Wotton, who has been convicted of inciting a riot after Mr Doomadgee’s death, sued Queensland police, claiming the islanders had been racially discriminated against during and after the unrest. He said police had conducted themselves differently because they were dealing with an Aboriginal community.

The Federal Court found that police had indeed contravened the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth) in their treatment of Aboriginal witnesses, submitting inaccurate information to the coroner, and failing to “communicate effectively” with the community to defuse tensions. Not suspending Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley after Mr Doomadgee’s death, and removing him from the island, was unlawful discrimination. [34]

“It’s the first time an entire community has been represented in a class action against a state of Australia alleging racial discrimination and being vindicated in that cause,” said Lawyer Stewart Levitt, who pursued the discrimination case.

Many angry people were watching the court decision. Aboriginal communities in Western Australia could follow suit.

As long as police officers know that they are treated as a protected species by their governments, their respective ministers, commissioners and their fellow officers that is how they will act.—Ray Jackson, president, Indigenous Social Justice Association [18]

We heard it all before

A glance beyond Australia’s borders reveals that the relationship between police and black people is tainted by the same issues.

Jon Swaine, from The Guardian in New York, reports that “black residents of Ferguson, Missouri, routinely had their constitutional rights violated through unjustified arrests, traffic stops and other actions carried out by a racially biased police department, the US Department of Justice has concluded, according to multiple reports.

“An extensive federal review of Ferguson’s police force is said to have found that officers disproportionately used excessive force against black people, who were also subject to arrests without probable cause and stops when driving without reasonable suspicion.” [31]

To no surprise, 93% of all arrests were of black people, almost nine in 10 uses of force were against African Americans, 95% of people detained at the city jail for more than two days were black—but only 67% of Ferguson’s population is African American.

Mutual respect agreement

But there is hope. In 2009 the Ngukurr community in the Northern Territory signed a mutual respect agreement with police [15] aiming to improve relations.

Police commit to mutual respect, regular meetings, improved cultural awareness and community interaction. Elders are to train local police, including information on the location and importance of sacred sites and ceremonial grounds.

Footnotes

View article sources (36)

[1] 'Federal police slow to deal with complaints', SMH 29/1/2012
[2] 'Premier backs police handling of protest', Koori Mail 505 p.8
[3] 'Police accused of being heavy-handed', Koori Mail 404 p.44
[4] 'Loud and proud', Koori Mail 513 p.9
[5] 'Towards a just system', Koori Mail 511 p.24
[6] 'Mr Briscoe laid to rest', Koori Mail 519 p.17
[7] 'WA taser footage shown at hearing', Koori Mail 491 p.16
[8] 'Bugmy not guilty - Police use of taser found 'excessive'', Aboriginal Legal Service NSW/ACT, Media release 21/2/2012
[9] 'Indigenous people more likely to be tasered: CMC', Koori Mail 500 p.10
[10] 'Taser usage in spotlight', Koori Mail 515 p.12
[11] 'Top cop repeats Spratt apology', Koori Mail 500 p.10
[12] 'Mulrunji protest set', Koori Mail 502 p.27
[13] 'Police 'most racist' in WA', Koori Mail 414 p.11
[14] 'ALS offers to help', Koori Mail 525 p.7
[15] 'NT police, Ngukurr Elders in mutual respect agreement', Koori Mail 455 p.12
[16] ''Selective policing' under fire', Koori Mail 393 p.14
[17] See for example 'Stark differences in accounts of killing', Sun Herald 2/10/2011
[18] 'Roberto Curti Inquest Findings 14 nov 2012 and the taser forum', email, Ray Jackson 15/11/2012
[19] 'Welfare addiction causes Aboriginal rifts, hides real enemy', media statement, Goodooga NSW, 20/12/2009
[20] 'NSW police accused of bashing 'cover-up'', SBS News, 18/2/2013, http://www.sbs.com.au/news/article/1738280/NSW-police-accused-of-bashing-cover-up, retrieved 22/2/2013
[21] 'Aboriginal man did not assault police: cop', The Tracker 22/2/2013
[22] 'Christmas in Borroloola', The Tracker 28/2/2013
[23] 'Cop blows whistle', Sunday Telegraph 7/4/2013
[24] 'Police bungled inquiry into boy's death: NT Coroner', The Age 9/4/2011
[25] 'Climate of death – Justice denied means more will die', The Stringer 18/7/2013
[26] 'Return to country', SMH Spectrum 21/9/2013
[27] '10,000 move on notices', The Stringer 15/1/2014
[28] Ray Jackson, President, Indigenous Social Justice Association, email 19/5/2014
[29] 'Tony Albert's Heroes hit target at indigenous art awards', SMH 8/8/2014
[30] 'Australia's indigenous incarceration crisis', Aljazeera 14/12/2014
[31] 'Ferguson mired in sweeping racial discrimination, federal report finds', The Guardian 4/3/2015
[32] 'Ms Dhu inquest: police officer says he believed she was faking her injuries', The Guardian 18/3/2016
[33] 'Indigenous advocate: 'Jail is part of our life and part of being institutionalised’', The Guardian 4/8/2016
[34] 'Palm Island riots: Federal Court finds police acted with 'impunity' in racial discrimination lawsuit', ABC News 5/12/2016
[35] 'Bowraville: How three families from a disadvantaged country town took on the state', SMH 28/5/2016
[36] 'Reporting on racism as a light-skinned Koori', The Guardian 11/9/2017, comment by "wardadkiwi"

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Aboriginal culture - Law & justice - Aboriginal-police relations, retrieved 19 November 2018