'Another precious life lost': A fourth Indigenous person has died in custody in just three weeks

Aboriginal justice advocates say the recent deaths of four Indigenous people in custody are a "huge red flag" that something is wrong with Australia's justice system.

Protesters participate in a Black Lives Matter rally at Langley Park in Perth on 12 June, 2020.

Protesters participate in a Black Lives Matter rally at Langley Park in Perth on 12 June, 2020. Source: AAP

Warning: This story contains a photo of a deceased Indigenous person, published with permission from the family. 

A family and their community are mourning the death of Barkindji man Anzac Sullivan, the fourth Indigenous person to die in Australian custody in three weeks. 

Mr Sullivan, 37, died during a police pursuit in Broken Hill on 18 March, the Aboriginal Legal Service of NSW and the ACT said on Thursday. 


His sister Donna said he was loved by his family and so many in his community. 

"Anzac was a loved brother, nephew, son and uncle. He was loved by many in his community and he will be missed," Donna said in a statement from his family and the ALS. 

She is joined in mourning by siblings Elain, Adrian, Mervyn, Jacqueline and Leslie, as well as extended family. Mr Sullivan's parents, Cheryl and Brian, are both deceased.

Barkindji man Anzac Sullivan
Anzac Sullivan passed away in the New South Wales town of Broken Hill following a police chase. Source: Supplied: Aboriginal Legal Service

NSW Police said officers had attended an address in the NSW town over an outstanding warrant. 

"It is alleged the 37-year-old man ran from police. A short time later, patrolling officers were alerted to a male suffering a medical episode nearby," the statement said. 

"Police commenced CPR on the man before he was taken to Broken Hill Hospital and declared decreased."

Police said a critical incident investigation has been launched following Mr Sullivan's death. 

It follows those of three other Indigenous people in custody in the last three weeks: two in NSW and one in Victoria. 

Aboriginal Legal Service NSW/ACT principal solicitor Sarah Crellin said she was both devastated and furious. 

"Any death in custody is an absolute tragedy, and our hearts go out to the Sullivan family and their community," Ms Crellin said on Thursday. 

"We are devastated and furious that another precious life has been lost." 

Greens senator and Gunnai Gunditjmara and Djab Wurrung woman, Lidia Thorpe, expressed her sympathies to Mr Sullivan's family and community, saying First Nations people are sad and "angry beyond words".

"Why should our people keep dying in places where they're meant to be kept safe? This system is deeply racist," she said. 

Lidia Thorpe
Greens senator and DjabWurrung Gunnai Gunditjamara woman Lidia Thorpe. Source: NITV

Two of the other deaths in custody - one man in his mid-30's who died on 2 March at Long Bay Hospital. Authorities believe his death was "natural" and that he had "multiple" medical issues. 

Three days later, a woman in her mid-50s died at Silverwater Women's Prison. She is believed to have taken her own life. 

The NSW government did not publicly announce the deaths, but they were revealed during questioning at budget estimates. 

Authorities in Victoria later . The coroner was informed of the man's death and will formally determine its cause. 

The Aboriginal Legal Service is now calling for an independent body to urgently and transparently investigate Mr Sullivan's death. 

Speaking on Thursday, Ms Crellin said the recent deaths in custody were a "huge red flag". 

"For four deaths to occur in the space of little over a fortnight is a huge red flag that something is seriously wrong with police and corrections systems in Australia," she said. 

The legal service said there have been around 500 recorded deaths of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in custody in Australia since a royal commission into the issue was completed almost three decades ago. 

The inquiry’s final report, signed on 15 April 1991, made 339 recommendations around liaison with Indigenous groups, procedures for people in custody, police education and improved accessibility to information. Justice advocates say many recommendations are yet to be implemented.

"As we approach the 30th anniversary, it's unfathomable that more lives are being taken, with no sign of meaningful action from governments," Ms Crellin said. 

More recently, a saw Australia challenged on the world stage over a lack of progress on reducing Indigenous incarceration rates.

Australia was also criticised for keeping the age of criminal responsibility at 10 years old.

 the federal government set new targets for reducing the rate of Indigenous incarnation by 2031.

But Cheryl Axelby, co-chair of Aboriginal-led justice coalition Change the Record, the Commonwealth has been dragging its feet for far too long.

“One of the things we've been saying is the government knows what action is needed to end the over-incarceration of our people and how to get there - it's been spelled out in countless inquires and reports,” she said.

“We strongly believe in a national holistic and whole governance strategy to address the prison and violence rates, developed in partnership with Aboriginal people, organisations and with the families who lost loved ones particularly at the centre of the table.”

Senator Thorpe said the government has apologised for deaths in custody as recently as last week, but "sorry isn't good enough". 

"We've said it once, we've said it a million times ... Sorry means you don't do it again. It's all talk and no action from these people and these families deserve better."

Fifteen Aboriginal families whose loved ones have died in custody have requested to meet with Prime Minister Scott Morrison on 15 April - the 30th anniversary of the final report's release. They have , but no response from Mr Morrison, the ALS said. 

"Without further action, Aboriginal people will continue to die before their time, away from their loved ones, and in traumatic circumstances," Ms Crellin said. 

"Before the 30th anniversary ... the NSW government and the Commonwealth government must each deliver an action plan to prevent further deaths." 

6 min read
Published 25 March 2021 at 11:07am
By Emma Brancatisano, Evan Young