The death of a 22-year-old woman in a police cell at the South Hedland police station in early August has devastated her family. Her untimely death has struck a chord with many people around the nation – and with media which has sustained coverage and increasingly investigated into what led to this young woman’s death. But what of the police officers who were responsible for her? How are they coping in knowing that they could have saved this young woman’s life? It is understood that one of them is being treated for depression following the unnecessary tragedy. It is understood that the officer may not be coping.
Ms Dhu was detained in a police cell for 48 hours, till she became unconscious. It is understood that police had been called out to a disturbance but when checking their profiles found that Ms Dhu had unpaid parking fines totalling around $1000. She was detained despite being physically unwell, despite pleading that she was unwell. She should have had crisis support and she should have finished up hospitalised instead of being locked up in a police cell. Both Ms Dhu and her partner, Dion Ruffin, were detained in the Hedland police watch house. Two witnesses, her partner, Mr Ruffin and another man who shared the cell with Mr Ruffin, 61-year-old Michael Wilson have both stated that Ms Dhu pleaded to the police officers that she was unwell – right till the end. On two occasions, Ms Dhu was driven to Hedland Health Campus where it is believed that she was not examined by a physician. A health official provided the police with a medical clearance that Ms Dhu was fit enough to be returned to a police 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 that the police officers at times believed Ms Dhu “was acting” and that they said to her, “get up”. Mr Ruffin has stated Ms Dhu was “mocked” by the police officers. If this is true, the police officers have to deal with their misjudgements and in the fact that Ms Dhu was genuine in her pleadings to them at all times. But these judgement calls, especially in regards to health and welfare, should not have to be made by police officers. If Western Australia had a CNS, as does NSW, the police officers would have been relieved of the burden of these judgments. A stout advocate from the CNS 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 and other stereotypical views which 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.
In March, journalist William Verity wrote a profound piece on the suffocating silence around suicide in the police force.
“If it takes the death of yet another police officer to wake us up to the scandal occurring all around us, his life may not be entirely wasted,” wrote Mr Verity.
Mr Verity wrote of a half a dozen police officers who in the preceding year took their lives.
“You won’t have heard their names, you won’t hear them honoured at Police Remembrance Days, and their names are specifically excluded from the National Police Memorial in Canberra. It’s as if their many years of honourable service leading to the ultimate sacrifice never happened.”
NSW police officer, Ashley Bryant, father of three young children, took his life before Christmas 2012. Just before taking his life, he left this message, “I can no longer live with the trauma of it and I want this to go to the coroner.”
He had stated that “there needs to be more, more things put in place for what happens.”
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 judgement calls, and often they make these judgement calls based on past experiences and not on individual circumstance. The thresholds of many of these judgements 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 CNS, which has advocates trained in identifying suicidal ideation, who can enable health and welfare assessments then we should do so.
Mr Verity writes, “There are many thousands of sick and medically discharged police around Australia.”
“Though blame will not save a single life, there is no doubt that the silence and lack of action by police unions is a national scandal.”
Any number of former police officers will speak to the silence in the police forces around mental trauma, mental breakdowns, depression, attempted suicides and suicides. They will speak to what they argue as inadequate support from their police unions on these issues. Police departments are reticent to respond to media inquiries about these issues. But the silence has to stop.
If Police Services and Police Unions want to get it right for their officers and for the communities they seek to honourably protect then they have to stand up and speak up. They have to break the silences.
In the name of not only Ms Dhu, but also in the name of the police officer who is suffering as a result of the judgments that she had to make, because they were imposed on her by various protocols, the Western Australia Police Service and the Western Australian Police Union need to call for the Custody Notification Service – to be hosted by the Aboriginal Legal Service. This would be a big step in the right direction. Far too many police officers, current and former, have told me they would like this service implemented.
The police should also call for the establishment of a roster of on-call nurses to all watch-houses. They could also call for the outlawing of people detained on unpaid fines. Police watch-houses should not be warehouses of poor people who cannot afford to pay off their fines. This is not their job and they should be limited in their involvement, these are civil matters between other parties.
An uncle of Ms Dhu, Shaun Harris, said, “The families are 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.”
– The author of this article, Gerry Georgatos, declares an impartiality conflict of interest. He is a long-time custodial systems and deaths in custody researcher.