Western Australia and the Northern Territory record the highest death rates of First Peoples in police custody. The arrest rates of First Peoples in Western Australia and the Northern Territory are the highest in the nation. The imprisonment rates of First Peoples in Western Australia and the Northern Territory are the highest in the nation – from a racialized lens, these rates are among the highest in the world. A number of police custodial deaths of First Peoples are once again flickering attention to the deplorably disproportionate death in custody rates of First Peoples.
Recently, a 22-year-old woman, Ms Dhu, died needlessly in a police lockup in South Hedland, Western Australia. She had been the victim of a domestic violence incident but instead of being assisted in all ways one would imagine she was instead detained for ‘unpaid fines’. It is also nearly two years since the death of a 44-year-old Kimberley woman, Ms Mandijarra who died in a Broome police cell. But nearly two years later the mandatory report into this death-in-custody has not eventuated. It is fast approaching to ten years since the death of Mulrunji at Palm Island but despite the high profile tragedy there have been next-to-nothing positive changes to custodial protocols. I have argued for the roll-out of the Custody Notification Service (CNS) across the nation. It has been in place in NSW since 1998. Since then then there have been no deaths in a police watch-house of First Peoples. Had the CNS been in place in Queensland at the time of Mulrunji’s arrest he would still be alive. The police would have had to make contact with the CNS as a must-do first port of call after his arrest.
It is an indictment of governments that little has been done to exact vital changes to custodial protocols. It is an indictment that so few lessons are learned after each death in custody.
In fact, police custodial deaths of First Peoples are on the rise. Police officers need some assistance here, they need governments to do their job and implement protocols to assist them. They need governments to not penny-pinch and instead implement for instance the CNS. It costs NSW a paltry half a million dollars per year – peanuts! Every State and Territory can afford this.
Hundreds of millions of dollars were spent on a Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (1987-1991) and yet governments beat around the bush on the recommendations. They cannot scrub up hundreds of thousands of dollars or several million dollars each year to implement vital life-saving recommendations.
According to the Australian Institute of Criminology’ national deaths in custody monitoring program from 1980 to 2011 there have been 2,319 deaths in custody.
1,393 were prison deaths in custody and 903 were police custody deaths. 18 deaths were in juvenile custody and 5 were in AFP related custodial operations.
81 per cent of the total deaths in custody were of non-Aboriginal Australians – 1,870 deaths. 19 per cent of the total deaths were of First Peoples – 449 deaths. However First Peoples are less than 3 per cent of Australia’s total population. The median age of Australians is 37 years, however of First Peoples it is 20 years of age. Nearly 60 per cent of the population of First Peoples have been born since the end of the Royal of Commission.
29 per cent of the total Australian prison population is comprised of First Peoples. This is a national disgrace and racialized imprisonment. My research argues that 1 in 54 of First Nations adults are in prison, with one in 20-something having experienced prison. What needs to be understood is that despite the Final Report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, more than two decades ago, the crude totals of deaths in custody continue. Arrest, detainment and incarceration of First Peoples rise each year – record levels. The arrest rates of First Peoples are highest in Western Australia and in the Northern Territory – from a racialized lens they are among the world’s highest.
Whereas prison custodial deaths have steadied at times over the last 30 years, police custodial deaths nationally have not, with Western Australia and the Northern Territory the brunt. Police custodial deaths for First Peoples, and for all Australians, have gone up since the RCIADC instead of down!
According to the Australian Institute of Criminology, in 2009, First Peoples accounted for 22 per cent of police custodial deaths, 22 per cent again in 2010, 29 per cent in 2011. Head injuries and multiple traumas were significant contributors to some of these deaths.
Of the 903 police custodial deaths from 1980 to 2011, 203 of them have been of First Peoples. This equates to 26 per cent of police custodial deaths comprising of First Peoples, whereas in prison custodial deaths First Peoples account for 19 per cent of the total prison deaths over this period. Therefore it is more likely for a First Nations person to die in police custody than in prison custody. Why?
According to the Australian Institute of Criminology, nationally there was one death in police custody of a First Nations person in 1980. This rose to 15 in 1987, the year the RCIADC was launched. When the Final Report was delivered five years later there had been five deaths of First Peoples in police custody. Were lessons learned? In 2003 there were 11 deaths, in 2004 there were 10, in 2005 there were 11. In these three years all police custodial deaths numbered 42, 41 and 42 respectively.
In the least the Custody Notification Service needs to be rolled out nationally.