Does human life matter? To what degree should we help to prevent a suicide? How much effort should we put in to improve the lot of someone else? The Queensland Labor Government has rejected the establishing of the Custody Notification Service. This service has saved Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander lives in NSW, for 17 years. The next life lost in one of Queensland’s police watch houses or while on remand in a correctional facility, particularly a suicide, will be more blood on government hands. You’d think they would have learned from the tragic death of Mulrunji Doomadgee in the Palm Island police watch house. The outgoing Western Australian LNP Government also rejected establishing the CNS – likewise, you’d think they would have learned from the horrible deaths of Ms Dhu and Mr Ward. The incoming Western Australian Labor Government is intimating it will keep its State Party Conference pledge to implement the service.
South Australia’s Labor Government has agreed to establish a Custody Notification. The Northern Territory is still languishing on whether it will or won’t. There are no justifications for the rejection of a CNS. It is instead an indictment. There are also no justifications for governments intending to implement the CNS in taking far too long to do so. This too is an indictment of governments.
In 2015, the Western Australian Labor Party at its State Conference resolved that;
54) WA Labor recognises the importance of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and its recommendations.
55) WA Labor believes the Royal Commission’s recommendations have been inadequately implemented.
56) WA Labor will; a) ensure that Aboriginal Australians have equitable access to legal representation and interpreters; b) ensure full implementation of all the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody; c) implement strategies at aimed at reducing self-harm and deaths in custody; d) implement policies to reduce the numbers of people held in custody and recidivism of those in prison.
In resolution 107, WA Labor stated, “Noting the success of the New South Wales Custodial Notifications Service in dramatically reducing Aboriginal deaths in custody in that state, in government WA Labor will fund and implement a CNS to ensure Aboriginal people who are taken into custody have immediate access to appropriate legal assistance.”
The supporting of the detainee while in a police lockup continues to the remand period while in prison custody. When someone is arrested and detained they are at an elevated risk to life-threatening levels of anxiety. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are at much higher risk than the rest of the population because of the distrust that has developed from generations of racism and marginalisation. Deaths of detainees in police custody led to a royal commission that went from 1987 to 1991. Several recommendations from that inquiry called for immediate support to detainees through skilled advocates.
Today, this support exists through the Custody Notification Service (CNS) but only in NSW and the ACT. The CNS is a 24-hour legal advice and helpline for Aboriginal and Torres Islanders who have been taken into police custody.
Under NSW legislation the police must contact the Aboriginal Legal Service whenever they detain an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person. The detainee is subsequently provided with support, with early legal, health and welfare advice. This system has saved lives, and – because anxiety levels have been reduced – has also led to fewer Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders convicted in NSW when compared with other states where there is no CNS.
Since the CNS was implemented in NSW in 2000, there had not been a a single death of an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person in a police watch house until recently. On 19 July 2016, 36-year-old Rebecca Maher died in the Maitland police watch house after the police had failed to contact the ALS advocate.
With so many of the nation’s arrests comprising of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, it is unjustifiable that the rest of the nation has not implemented this service.
It is beyond exasperating that right-mindedness has been sidelined for so many years by one government after another and in turn many lives lost. It is not only the tragedy of lives lost, but of human beings who have been stranded in seriously high levels of distress, who have been hit with further charges, compounded into a constancy of traumas, with some degenerating from broken to ruined lives, to irreparable damage.
Western Australia, the Northern Territory and South Australia convict Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders at among the world’s highest rates. One in six Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in WA and the NT have been to prison, with one in eight in SA. One in 13 of WA’s Aboriginal adult males are in prison. Nearly 90% of the NT’s prison population is comprised of Aboriginal peoples.
The ALS lawyer is trained in identifying suicidal ideation, in deescalating anxiety, in psychosocially validating people. It is when we are in our direst need that people need people. As a suicide prevention researcher, I know first-hand that threats of self-harm and suicide in detained people are common and authentic.
In NSW, the CNS responds to nearly 16,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who have been taken into custody. Therefore the CNS advocates respond to 300 people on average per week. The CNS costs only $526,000 per year – that’s it! One coronial inquiry can cost as much.
If the CNS has saved lives in NSW and the ACT, year after year, and assisted thousands of individuals in their direst hour, then why isn’t this service national? South Australia has agreed to it, and it will cost them around $400,000 per year.
The death of 22-year-old Ms Dhu in a WA police watch house should have led to the immediate establishment of the CNS in that state. The memory of Ms Dhu has been betrayed by the WA government. It is my firm belief that a CNS advocate would have seen to the hospitalisation and proper treatment of Ms Dhu.
What often isn’t taken into account is the psychological impact on police officers of being on suicide watch. The CNS relieves police officers of the burden of health and welfare judgments.
A police officer said to me, “We do not want to be making these decisions. We do because we are given no choice. If it works in NSW, [the CNS] will work here too.”
All anti-discrimination, anti-racism and cross cultural training teaches us to recognise that every workplace is tainted by racism and discrimination and only with the first port of call in recognising this can there be striving in managing and reducing the racism and discrimination.
As a profession, police officers are among the most elevated risk groups to suicidal ideation and it is about time that police commissioners and police unions come clean with public support for the implementation of the CNS. Police officers and police unions have contacted me to continue advocating for the CNS. However, if they went public with the call for a national CNS, this service would be implemented without delay.
Recently retired NSW police commissioner Nick Kaldas once said to me during a discussion we were having about the “Forgotten 300” that the CNS should be a must-do, or as some say, it’s a no-brainer. Famed Mabo barrister, Greg McIntyre implores “a custody notification service as an important measure in preventing deaths in custody.”
The CNS has been championed by the federal Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Senator Nigel Scullion. We have had a number of conversations about the CNS and he gets it, he understands the need for it to be rolled out nationally.
He saved the CNS in NSW and the ACT by funding it to mid-2019, pulling together the $1.8m out of his portfolio, even though it was the responsibility of other portfolio holders.
The CNS has also been championed by WA’s Senator Sue Lines who knows how desperately her home state needs it.
The Western Australian state Labor party has committed to implementing the CNS when elected. It is time every state and territory does the right thing and implements the CNS. There is no greater legacy than to save lives.
I will wrap up with the words of members of Ms Dhu’s family. Uncle Shaun Harris said, “We do not want this to happen to anyone else. Our families are heartbroken and the pain has not left us.” Ms Dhu’s mother, Della Roe, said, “My daughter should be with us today. Her loss haunts me each day and it will remain but it will give me at least an ounce of peace to see the CNS implemented.”