Ms Dhu was dragged and carted to the pod of a police vehicle. Ms Dhu was dumped into the pod like some would say “a dead kangaroo” and shut inside, alone. No police officer demonstrated the common sense or compassion to ride with her in the back of the van where likely her last breaths were taken. There is no doubt that the police contributed to the death of Ms Dhu, be it by a combination of neglect, stupidity and racism. I was at the first day of the coronial inquest this morning before catching a flight to Canberra.
Coroner Ros Fogliani heard from counsel assisting the coroner, Ilona O’Brien, that Ms Dhu died of a staphylococcus infection, pneumonia and septicaemia.
An hour long compilation of CCTV footage described the deplorable last 40 hours of Ms Dhu’s life. Yes, police and the health clinic have a lot to answer for – in terms of negligence and racist assumptions.
I spoke with her grieving Mother, Della Roe, and her Uncle, Shaun Harris. Ms Roe said, “How could they treat my child like that, how could they drag her and throw her around? It broke my heart to see this. The police should have called the ambulance when she first complained of pain. Why wouldn’t they do this?”
“I can’t believe Julieka is no longer with us. Every day the pain is the same. To see her suffer like this hurts all over again.”
“I can’t sleep and when finally I do I wake each morning without Julieka.”
Ms Dhu’s Father, Robert Dhu, and her Grandmother, Carol Roe left the coroner’s courtroom prior to the release of the footage, not being able to withstand seeing the torment of their loved one’s last hours.
Mr Harris said, “It was disgusting, and everyone has a lot to answer for.”
“What will come of all this, what will they change? We know what changes are needed, we know the the racism, we know we need cultural training, real training of police and others to clean them up and make them understand. We have fought from the beginning for the truth.”
Ms Dhu was hurting from comments by the police officers captured on CCTV, after dumping the possibly lifeless Ms Dhu in the rear pod of the police vehicle. A police officer is heard “Oh, shut up”. Some of the gallery thought he was telling a ‘moaning’ Ms Dhu to ‘shut up’ but her mother, Ms Roe, and others, believe the officer said this to another police officer who may have quipped taking Ms Dhu “to the morgue”. I believe Ms Dhu was unconscious by the time she was placed into the pod. However Ms Roe has asked the lawyers representing the family to ask the Court for clarification on the comment.
The CCTV footage, an hour long, showed Ms Dhu physically suffering and pleading her case to police. “I am hurting,” said Ms Dhu.
“I am in so much pain.”
“Oh God, someone please help me.”
Counsel O’Brien effectively damned the Hedland Health Service, describing medical staff reporting that Ms Dhu was a perpetrator of “behavioural issues”. The racist presumption of an Aboriginal woman in the company of police went straight to ‘disorderly’. To make it worse a police officer said to a nurse that he believed Ms Dhu “was faking”.
Throughout the CCTV footage it was clear that Ms Dhu was in rapid physical deterioration but police who had taken Ms Dhu twice to the Health campus till her third and final journey were reticent to believe her. They should have called for an ambulance on each occasion Ms Dhu complained of being terribly unwell, but they did not call for an ambulance. A female police officer is captured on CCTV footage telling Ms Dhu to relax her breathing and that this will relieve her chest pains. All of a sudden this police officer is a physician!
Ms Dhu’s cries for help were relentless. The neglect and stupidity by both the police and health mob led to Ms Dhu’s death.
Police do have a lot to respond to. The systemic underlying factors that were on the occasion of Ms Dhu’s death evident, visible right from August 4 last year to all who cared to notice were even more damning following the CCTV footage screened in the coroner’s court. Police officers had failed to respond to Ms Dhu’s pleas. At the end of it all, they went to check on her possibly lifeless body in the cell. They lifted her arm and it dropped. The police officers stepped outside the cell to discuss what next. Instead of calling an ambulance they went back inside the cell and dragged Ms Dhu to the cell floor. One officer dragged Ms Dhu by the arms along the floor out the cell door. Then they lifted her by the arms and legs and carted her through the police station, outside, and to the police vehicle. They lifted her into the rear pod of the police door and shut the door on her. None of them wise or compassionate enough to ride with Ms Dhu in the back, to keep her steady and safe from being tossed around. It was shameful, outrageous.
A young woman died because of unpaid fines. We should never damn the impoverished as such but in Western Australia, Australia’s backwater, we do.
And what of the Hedland Health Campus? Some of their health staff had presumed of Ms Dhu “behavioural issues” and discharged the young woman.
Counsel O’Brien said, “By the morning of August 4, 2014, Ms Dhu’s clinical state rapidly worsened, and although it was not appreciated by the police officers involved, some of whom believed that Ms Dhu was feigning her illness, she was in an advanced state of septic shock and only hours from death.”
In August last year, weeks after the tragic, outrageous death of Ms Dhu I flew to Canberra to meet with the Federal Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Senator Nigel Scullion and argue the case to him for the roll-out of the Custody Notification Service in Western Australia (and in the rest of the nation), alongside to an end to jailing fine defaulters (the poor). Minister Scullion saw the merit, agreed and has been a standout in his support and lobbied, urging his Western Australian counterparts to do so. But Premier Colin Barnett who in October last year promised to give everything to reducing incarceration rates and deaths in custody has to date done next to nothing. The Custody Notification Service would have probably saved the life of Ms Dhu.
The coroner’s court today was full to the brim with lawyers – eleven representing affected parties plus four other lawyers as interested parties. The doctors, nurses and police officers are being represented by lawyers. But Ms Dhu had no-one to represent her interests when she was pleading, begging, crying for her life. A Custody Notification Service would have provided a humble advocate at her hour of need.
The police officers should just admit they screwed up and that they made assumptions about her health they had no right to, and delved into racist stereotypes no doubt. The Custody Notification Service will relieve them of the burden and impacts of judgments to which they have no expertise. The health personnel should admit they too made assumptions they never should have made, that they may have presumed of ‘behavioural issues’ with this young woman because she was a young Aboriginal woman escorted by police. Racist stereotypes. This State Government should also scrub up with apologies, compensation to the families and with immediate actions – the implementation of the Custody Notification Service, an end to jailing fine defaulters (the poor) and alternatives to low level offending. If the State Government fails to immediately implement the CNS then they should be called out for what they will be, racists. If the State Government fails to put to an end to the jailing of fine defaulters (the poor) then they should be called out for what they will be, bastards.
There are no words for the loss of this young woman, no words to comfort her mother, her father, her grandmother, her uncle, family members but for goodness sake there must now surely be a legacy of immediate and significant systemic changes.
– Declaration of impartiality conflict – Gerry Georgatos, a suicide prevention researcher and prison/custodial systems reform advocate, has lobbied the Federal Government for the Custody Notification Service and alternatives to the jailing of people for fine defaulting. He has also lobbied for other recommendations and outcomes on behalf of the family of Ms Dhu.
Previous articles by Gerry Georgatos