One in eight of Alice Spring’s citizens are at one time or another taken off the streets by police for being drunk or disorderly and into protective custody. But for 27 year old Kwementyaye Briscoe this lead to his death in an Alice Springs jail cell on January 5 of last year.
But instead the impoverishment of Aboriginal peoples in and around Alice Springs being the central theme of what leads to drunk and disorderly behaviour, the haves are telling the have-nots that what needs to be done is to reduce access to alcohol. But research clearly shows that inequality and abject poverty lead to various dysfunctions, in familial and societal predicaments, and alcohol only may exacerbate various disorderly or grievous behaviours.
Coroner Greg Cavanaugh inquiring into the death of Mr Briscoe recommended that the alcohol supply to Aboriginal communities should be limited. Mr Cavanaugh said that if Mr Briscoe had not been drunk he would not have been taken into protective custody. He lamented that Mr Briscoe had committed no crime and suggested the best way forward was to reduce the need for removing people off the streets who the police argue are not only removed for a safer society but also for the individual’s sake. The Coroner suggested the best way to reduce inebriation is to reduce access to alcohol.
Mr Cavanaugh said that 98 per cent of Alice Spring’s drunk people on the streets are Aboriginal. Territory police confirmed that each year Aboriginal people are held in their cells 30,000 times for being drunk.
Coroner Cavanaugh criticised the police who instead of checking on Mr Briscoe every 15 minutes left him to lay on a mattress with his neck compressed for more than two hours. Last year, an inquest heard that the police officers on watch did not realise how intoxicated Mr Briscoe was and that they ignored calls from other inmates – instead the police officers surfed the internet.
The Coroner recommended that the Territory Government convene an Alice Springs summit in order to find ways to reduce alcohol supply in and around the town. Alice Springs lawyers, police and doctors supported the call.
Dr Peggy Dwyer said Kwementyaye’s family supported “the need to curb the grog supply.” In 2012, the Territory Government did away with the Banned Drinkers Register, but last week the Government introduced a new alcohol protection order – where those charged with a serious offence while inebriated, will be prohibited from entering any premises selling alcohol for between three months to a year.
The police union and doctors and lawyers said there is already far too much for the police to do without having to do more in policing banned persons. “Once again the onus shifts on police to deal with an absolute tragedy of excessive numbers of Aboriginal people buying alcohol, every day, and obliterating themselves.”
Territory police union spokesperson Vince Kelly nailed it all during last year’s inquest, “What frustrates police is that we’re moving drunk people from the streets so we can remove the visible evidence of social policy failure.” The abject poverty is third world-akin for many of the Aboriginal residents in and around Alice Springs. Despite promises from the former Macklin ministry to address homelessness, overcrowded housing, the abject poverty, very little was achieved – Alice Springs has the nation’s worst homelessness rates, worst overcrowding, and is surrounded by what are third world communities. Housing and services infrastructure just did not happen. If it had, alcohol consumption would have been reduced. In visiting Alice Springs and its surrounding impoverished communities in July it was evident that there is a sense of hopelessness in many communities, and Elders speak to the obvious inequality.
Despite the police’s conduct of complacency and carelessness towards Mr Briscoe, the Coroner did not recommend any criminal charges. The Territory’s Police Commissioner John McRoberts said Territory police have been undertaking improved training as a result of Mr Briscoe’s death.
“Accidents do not just happen,” said Commissioner McRoberts. He said that as a result of the death nurses were now stationed at watch houses.
“Mr Briscoe should never have made it past the entrance of the watch house in the condition he was in.” The Commissioner said that he should have been taken to hospital, and that this is now the case for anyone assessed in the condition that Mr Briscoe was in.
He said more alternatives were needed including more hospital beds and shelters. “We cannot just stop taking people into protective custody unless there is an alternative. Right now there isn’t one.”
“Sadly, Mr Briscoe died in our care, may he rest in peace.” Commissioner McRoberts said he hoped that his unfortunate death “would be a catalyst for significant changes.”
Those changes will not be delivered by access to alcohol being reduced, though this may assist. What needs to be done is what has not been done to this time, relief from abject poverty – responsibility is now with the Warren Mundine-led Indigenous Advisory Council doing what Jenny Macklin’s people did not do for the Aboriginal communities – these third-word communities – in and around Alice Springs. Otherwise the abject poverty will continue to displace its despair in any number of ways, as is the predicament with abject poverty anywhere in the world. Alcohol abuse is only one of those displaced behaviours.