Twenty years after a royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in police custody released its findings, experts say more work is needed to address the issue.
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SBS

14 Apr 2011 - 6:32 PM  UPDATED 23 Aug 2013 - 5:14 PM

This story contains references to deceased Aboriginal people, which may cause distress to some listeners.

Listen to these SBS Radio reports from around the country looking at what progress has been made towards implementing the findings of the final report.

The Royal Commission releases its final report 20 years ago this Friday.

It investigated 99 official indigenous deaths in custody and offered 339 recommendations, including ridding prisons of potential points for hanging and new funding processes for Aboriginal organisations. The heralded report focused on procedures for people in custody, liaison with Aboriginal groups, and police education.

To Mick Gooda, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, the report's release was a moment of great hope for Australia's Aboriginal people. But while he believes the royal commission itself was perfect, the implementation of its recommendations has been the problem.

"We ended up with recommendations that went to almost every facet of life that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people experience here.

"I thought we approached it as if it was a program of work to be done, instead of embedding all those practices in the way we do business every day of the week, every day of the year. "And I think we missed an opportunity to do that with that report," he said.

The anniversary has been covered on Living Black

The death of John Pat

The Commission examined all deaths in custody in Australia which occurred between January 1980 and May 1989, and the actions taken in respect of each death.

It was sparked, says Mr Gooda, by the death of John Pat, a 16-year-old Aboriginal man, in the outback Western Australian town of Roebourne. Mr Pat died after a fight broke out on September 28th, 1983 between Aboriginal men and off-duty police officers outside a bottle shop.

Witnesses said one officer struck John Pat in the face, causing him to fall backwards, hitting his head on the road. A police officer allegedly went over and kicked him in the head, before he was dragged to a waiting police van, kicked in the face and thrown in.

Witnesses said at the police station Mr Pat and three other men were systematically dragged out, dropped to the road, picked up, punched to the ground and kicked again. John Pat died an hour later. His skull was fractured, and he suffered haemorrhaging, swelling, bruising and tearing of the brain, as well as bruises to the head, broken ribs and a torn aorta.

Mr Gooda says that John Pat's death stays in many indigenous people's consciousness.

“It was something that I remember, being a lot younger than I am today, watching film of that funeral - there were news reports - and just thinking, 'How can this be happening? And how did this young fella end up in the situation that he ended up with?'

“Later, as I got older, I actually went over to Roebourne and visited his grave and met his family, and it was a fairly important part of our consciousness in Queensland at the time to relate to this young fella and what happened to him,” he said.

Releasing its final report on April 15, 1991, the Royal Commission found Aboriginal people did not die at a higher rate in custody than non-Aboriginal people - the premise of the inquiry.
Instead, it found the root of the problem was that Aboriginal people were taken into custody at an overwhelmingly higher rate.

Twenty years on

Today the Australian Institute of Criminology continues to track deaths in custody and many of the specific aspects raised in the Royal Commission. Aboriginal deaths in police custody, which represented two-thirds of the case studies back then, have dropped dramatically in number. But while Aboriginal adults account for just two per cent of Australia's adult population, they make up one in four of Australia's prisoners.

Dr David Biles, who was the Royal Commission's head of research, says this means that when the entire system of police, the courts and Corrective Services is considered, the situation is no better.

"When we started the work in the Royal Commission, it was something like 12 to 15 per cent of people in prison at any one time in Australia were Aboriginal. Now, that figure is over 25 per cent, just over 25 per cent. That's a significant change. The more people there, then, clearly, the more are going to die," he said.

Gerry Georgatos, pursuing doctoral research in Australian deaths in custody at James Cook University, calculates an Aboriginal Australian is 15 times more likely to be imprisoned than a non-Aboriginal - up 50 per cent from 20 years ago.

His research so far indicates that from 1982 to 2008 there were 2056 Australian deaths in custody. He says 379 of those who died were Aboriginal – more than 18 per cent. Mr Georgatos is pushing for a new Senate inquiry into why so few police and prison officers have been held accountable.

"The big question I'm putting is, if we've had two and a half thousand deaths in custody since 1980, and we've barely had them scrub up, uh, before the criminal-justice system, we've barely had them before the courts - it's only a handful who've gone before the courts - there is something wrong there. And we need to find the reasons for this," he said.

State by state

Mr Georgatos wants an inquiry to look at why Western Australia, with about three per cent of its population Aboriginal, has more Aboriginal than non-Aboriginal deaths in custody.

He says the Northern Territory, with 35 per cent of its population Aboriginal, is the only other state or territory in that category.

Mick Gooda, points to both Western Australia and the Northern Territory as concerns today. Victoria is arguably the state with the best record, he says.

Mr Gooda credits the former Brumby Government for low rates of Aboriginal prisoners and juveniles in detention. He contrasts them with the 2009 arrest of a 12-year-old Aboriginal boy in Western Australia for accepting a stolen chocolate Freddo Frog from a friend.

Mr Georgatos says any zero-tolerance approach taken today directly conflicts with the recommendations of the Royal Commission.

Mr Gooda is less hopeful as he once was about addressing Aboriginal deaths in custody.
"We've got more people in custody than we ever did have today, you know, so ... it goes to a sense of frustration about ... almost 'What was all [the Royal Commission] about?'

"And you sort of hope all that work wasn't done in vain, but it's hard to avoid that conclusion," he said.