The death of 22-year-old Yamatji woman Julieka Dhu while in police custody earlier this month has led to renewed calls for medical nurses to be stationed at lockups 24/7 and for the implementation of the Custody Notification Service in Western Australia. Ms Dhu was pronounced dead soon after arriving at a health facility after 48 hours in the South Hedland Police lockup. She had been complaining of being ill right throughout her detainment, had been vomiting and there were visible injuries.

Her 39-year-old boyfriend, Yamatji Dion Ruffin had been in the lockup with her, both surprisingly held in custody for unpaid fines and possibly for a disorderly. Family on both sides, of the boyfriend and of Ms Dhu, are angry and distraught.

According to Mr Ruffin, his girlfriend should be alive today. He said police have a burden to carry with the death of Ms Dhu.

Mr Ruffin said Ms Dhu suffered and was complaining of pain, at times on her knees begging for medical help. Ms Dhu and Mr Ruffin had been arrested on Saturday August, 2. Police took her to Hedland Health campus twice before the third and final time on the Monday, where she was examined. Police were given ‘medical clearances’ that she was fit to remain in custody by the Hedland Health campus.

Mr Ruffin said that Ms Dhu had died unnecessarily and was failed by both the police and the health systems. Family on both sides have said the same. Grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins from Perth, Geraldton and Hedland who I have spoken with have said Ms Dhu should have been hospitalised “but because she is an Aboriginal woman the racism in the systems treated Julieka as lesser than others.”

Mr Ruffin said that despite vomiting since her arrest, despite obvious fever and what appeared to be her physical and mental deterioration somehow she was cleared twice at the Hedland Health campus. There remain questions as to whether a doctor actually examined Ms Dhu at the Health campus.

Aside the infection to the leg, the vomiting, and alleged visible signs of injuries, Ms Dhu may have sustained a head injury, probably from a fall in her cell.

Around midday on Monday, August 4, Ms Dhu was taken in what Mr Ruffin describes as a near catatonic state to Hedland Health campus, where she was soon after pronounced dead. The exact time of her passing is still unclear.

Mr Ruffin said that Ms Dhu had been dismissed by police “as a basket case, someone who they thought was a druggie.”

Mr Ruffin said to The Australian’s Michael McKenna, “She had been on her knees begging for help.”

“She had a blood blister the day before we were arrested.”

“We popped the blister with a sterile pin but then she woke feeling sick.”

“She had two old fractured ribs,” said Mr Ruffin to Mr McKenna.

“We begged for hours for the police to take her to hospital. She was in pain and vomiting, getting worse and worse.”

“It got worse, she could not move her legs and she was slurring.”

“She begged for help to the end.”

Ms Dhu was to be released on the Tuesday but this was never to be.

“On the Monday she was hysterical, she was saying she felt like she was dying,” said Mr Ruffin.

Mr Ruffin could not see in her cell “but Julieka said she was on the floor and when the cops finally took her to hospital they were laughing and saying she was acting.”

“I heard one of them say ‘get up’ but she couldn’t and she was begging for help to get up.”

“I heard a big thud and then silence.”

“I saw her being dragged out of the cell by her arms, her chin was on her chest. I cried out to her.”

It makes little sense why police would manhandle Ms Dhu instead of ambulance officers and the obvious duty of care.

Hedland is in the Pilbara, where Roebourne also lies. Three decades ago, 16-year-old John Pat died at the hands of inebriated racist police officers. On that day, Roebourne became to Western Australia what Birmingham had been to Alabama two decades earlier. His death was one of many that led to the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. 339 recommendations followed, but most of them to this day are yet to be implemented.

An uncle of Ms Dhu, Shauny Harris, said that some of those recommendations could have saved Ms Dhu’s life.

The Stringer spoke to Mr Harris.

“She should not have been incarcerated for unpaid fines.”

“The families are grieving, there is a lot of pain.”

“It is just our lot to be downed by the racism that is out there.”

“For Julieka to be on her knees begging in agony for help, for someone to listen, has brought so much anguish into our families, into anyone that is Aboriginal.”

“For someone so young to be lost is so much pain for the family.”

An auntie for Mr Ruffin, Yamatji Elder, Joyce Capewell, a former Aboriginal Visitors Scheme worker, said to The Stringer that “he is devastated”.

“He cannot believe what happened in the lockup.”

“He cannot believe how much they had to beg.”

“Our people hurt, the racism just continues.”

Western Australia has a diabolical record with deaths in custody. WA has the nation’s highest arrest rates of First Nations people. The WA Government should no longer delay the implementation of the Custody Notification Service. It was a recommendation of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, and only NSW has implemented it. Since its implementation in NSW there has not been a single police lockup death of a First Nations person.

The Custody Notification Service is a 24/7 phone service to the Aboriginal Legal Services. A lawyer is always on call. In NSW, police are required by law to immediately contact the ALS service and allow for the lawyer to speak to the detainee. The lawyer will instruct the police on health and welfare assessments. The service costs only $500,000 per annum in NSW, it will cost no more for Western Australia to run it.

Had Ms Dhu had such an advocate, she may not have been detained on unpaid fines, she may have been hospitalised. Such an advocate would have more than likely ensured a full health examination. Presumptions that may have been made about Ms Dhu while presenting unwell at the hospital in the company of police officers may not have been made had she not been in their company – a stereotypical theme that does pervade, perniciously even among the best of people. A stout advocate could have made all the difference.

Such a service relieves the burden placed on police to make various judgments, in Ms Dhu’s case the decisions may have led to her untimely and unnatural death.

The Custody Notification Service has been in place in NSW since 1998, and in 2005 was enshrined in law under the Powers and Responsibilities Act 2005, so it too must follow enshrined in law in every State and Territory. It is a simple tool for what should be a natural right and for positive ways forward for police, community and most importantly the detainee.

CEO of the Aboriginal Legal Service NSW/ACT said that the Service “is more than a phone line.”

“It is a lifeline.”

“Significantly, there have been no Aboriginal deaths in police custody since the phone line began.”

“Every time our lawyers speak to an Aboriginal person being detained, they check upon the welfare of the person by asking, ‘Are you okay?’”

“Often , people are not okay. Threats of self-harm or suicide are common.”

“Our lawyers are skilled at hearing ideation or real threats of self-harm or suicide.”

But Western Australia lags in implementing in the least what is being done in NSW despite the recent police custodial deaths, such as that of Warburton’s Mr Ward who should never have been carted off from the Kalgoorlie lockup on ‘Australia Day’ 2008 in the back of the G4S prison van in which he was burnt to death. It was both shameful negligence and racism that killed Mr Ward. Then followed the death of the frail Mr Phillips who was burdened by various disablements – he died needlessly in the Kalgoorlie lockup, once again obvious shameful neglect and racism. Weeks earlier the homeless Mr Phillips had been bashed by a gang of youths. And again the police lockup deaths continued with the death of Maureen Mandijarra dying in a Broome cell in 2012 after being detained for drinking in public. Broome police watch house has a deplorable record, only early last year a number of its police officers had to front the Corruption and Crimes Commission public inquiry to respond to questions about two deaths in custody.

A police spokesperson had said that, “On Monday 4 August, the woman again told police she was unwell and she was again conveyed to the Hedland Health Campus where her condition deteriorated and she passed away.”

Acting Police Commissioner Lawrence Panaia said, “In a situation where a detainee who is already in custody shows signs of being seriously injured or ill, WA Police policy requires officers to ensure the detainee is taken to a place for medical treatment, and this should be by ambulance whenever possible.”

WA Country Health Service regional director Ron Wynn had earlier defended the level of care of his health personnel at Hedland Health campus. But he declined to state whether a doctor had examined Ms Dhu.

“We can say that a preliminary review by Hedland Health campus staff has shown on each occasion she received appropriate treatment.”

An autopsy thus far has been unable to determine the cause of death. More tests to follow.

The State Government owes it to its police, to society, and most importantly to detainees that the Custody Notification Service should be implemented immediately. If it does not implement this Service without delay this cannot be regarded as anything less than shameful negligence and an act of racism.



–      Declaration of impartiality conflict of interest: Gerry Georgatos is a researcher in custodial systems, racism, premature deaths, unnatural deaths and in suicide prevention.

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