The Federal Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Nigel Scullion for several months has been urging the Western Australian State Government to implement the Custody Notification Service. This urging comes in response to the deaths of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander detainees in police lock ups. Last August, a 22 year old Yamatji woman needlessly died in the South Hedland Police lockup 48 hours after her arrest.
The mother of the late Ms Dhu, Della Roe, and the grandmother, Carol Roe, both applauded Senator Scullion’s commitment to a prospective roll out of the Custody Notification Service in Western Australia. But in the name of their daughter and granddaughter they would like it hurried up.
“It would be really good if it is implemented,” said Ms Della Roe.
“Other individuals and other families should never have to go through what my beautiful daughter and my family have gone through.”
“If it saves Aboriginal lives, if it saves the lives of our people then it must be done now.”
The young woman should never have been detained after police were called to a disorderly. But she and her partner were arrested after a background check revealed outstanding fines against them. In the case of Ms Dhu, to the tune of $1000. Ms Dhu should have been supported into crisis care but instead the outdated Western Australian law to lock up fine defaulters cost her life. In NSW, this classicist and draconian practice has been outlawed since 1988. Fine defaulting is poverty-related.
Ms Dhu was unwell – she deteriorated rapidly while in the lockup. She had pleaded for her life, begging for mercy, begging for medical attention. At times the police suggested she was pretending.
The death of the 22 year old has hit a nerve with many around the nation. An online petition in the name of Ms Dhu calling for 24/7 humane treatment of detainees was signed by 65,000 Australians. Today, it was tabled in State Parliament.
It has been nearly nine months since the young woman’s death and there is yet to be a coronial inquest. Ms Dhu’s untimely passing has struck a chord with many. Weeks after her death I flew to Canberra to meet the Federal Minister for Indigenous Affairs and urge him to roll out the Custody Notification Service in Western Australia and preferably nationally. This service is hosted by the Aboriginal Legal Service but presently is only in NSW and the ACT. Since its implementation in 1998 there have been no police watch house deaths of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in NSW and the ACT.
“That speaks for itself,” said Senator Scullion.
“I am working on finding the funding for it and working with the Western Australian Government to get this across the line.”
“We will get there.”
Yesterday, I spoke with WA member of parliament, Robin Chapple. Mr Chapple will table questions to the Government on the timeline prospects for the Custody Notification Service.
Ms Dhu’s grandmother, Ms Carol Roe said, “My granddaughter would still be here had there been someone for her like there would have been had Western Australia this Custody Notification Service in place. Our people need this and if Mr Scullion can make it happen right now then please make it happen right now.” “I ask Western Australia’s Government to listen to Mr Scullion and implement this lifesaver.”
The death of Ms Dhu has devastated her family. Her uncle Shaun Harris has campaigned all around the nation for seven months. But this Service is something that many Western Australian police want. I know, they have told me, including high level insiders within the Police Union. So what is the delay? There has to be some urgency here.
I know that one of the police officers who was on shift during those 48 hours wants to hear the Custody Notification Service will be rolled out in Western Australia. What must it be like for a police officer to know they had an unnatural hand in a preventable death? How are the police officers coping who were on shift during Ms Dhu’s detention? One of them was not coping.
Ms Dhu was detained in the South Hedland Police watch house for the last 48 hours of her life. When she was finally ‘carted’ out of the cell for the last time, she was unconscious, probably dead. She had been detained on the lousy unpaid fines despite pleading unwell. Two witnesses, her partner, Mr Ruffin and another man, 61 year old Michael Wilson were detained in a nearby cell.
In my very first article, a day after the tragic passing of the young woman, I wrote, “There is no suggestion at this time that police contributed to the young woman’s death but if NSW’s Custody Notification Service, a 24/7 service, was in place in Western Australia this may have assisted the Hedland police in the saving of the young woman’s life. The Service would have provided a stout advocate for the young woman. Presumptions that may have been made about her 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 communicated on her behalf and pressed for the full suite of health assessments.”
Mr Ruffin has stated the police officers at times suggested Ms Dhu “was acting” and that they said to her, “get up”. Mr Ruffin stated Ms Dhu was “mocked” by the police officers. If this is true, the police officers have to deal with their misjudgments and in the fact that Ms Dhu was genuine in her pleadings to them at all times. But these judgment calls, especially in regards to health and welfare, should not have to be made by police officers. If Western Australia had a Custody Notification Service, as does NSW, the police officers would have been relieved of the burden of these judgments. A stout advocate from the Custody Notification Service would have ensured, as is the case in NSW, that health and welfare assessments would be made.
There are veils and layers to racism. There are those who do not believe they are racist, and for the most part they are not but they are prone to racialist stereotypical views which indeed do wash into the thinking of far too many. In knowing this, we should have every check in place to assist all parties – including the police, of course more importantly the detainee.
Research supports the obvious that police endure higher levels of mental trauma, stresses and suicide rates than other professions. The police services and their unions should be advocating for every possible check that will assist their officers and reduce the risk of mental breakdowns and suicide.
Police officers do deal with high-end predicaments on a near daily basis. They have to manage situations that most of us cannot imagine. They have to make many judgment calls and often they make these judgement calls based on past experiences and not on individual circumstance. The thresholds of many of these judgments may be low because of accumulated generalisations and because of the expertise they do not have, for instance they are not doctors, they are not psychologists. Where we can factor in appropriate checks such as the Custody Notification Service, which has advocates trained in identifying suicidal ideation, who can enable health and welfare assessments then we should do so.
In the name of Ms Dhu, for the sake of everyone, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, detainees and coppers, let us hurry up as Carol and Della Roe have said, and implement the Custody Notification Service.
A few months ago, Mr Harris said, “Our family is heartbroken.”
“We do not want this to happen to anyone else – no more. Not to anyone Black, not to anyone White.”
“We call for the Custody Notification Service. It would have made sure that someone was supporting my niece.”
And as one police officer said, “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.”
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