Indigenous rights advocates say some of the Northern Territory’s most vulnerable people have been excluded from a scheme designed to prevent deaths in custody.
The NT’s custody notification service (CNS) has been in effect since June this year and was supposed to trigger a call to a welfare hotline every time an Indigenous person is arrested.
However, NT police this week said the scheme would actually only come into play if a person is facing charges, meaning people detained under the Territory’s paperless arrest or protective custody laws would be excluded.
Deaths in custody researcher Associate Professor Thalia Anthony from the University of Technology Sydney called that development “concerning”.
“Looking at the Aboriginal deaths in custody in the Northern Territory, a substantial proportion are people who have been in through protective custody and through the paperless arrest laws,” she told NITV News.
“There have been about eight or nine people over a period of about five years who died under those laws, so to exclude them would be to go against the spirit of the recommendation of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.”
The Territory’s paperless arrest laws allow police to detain someone for minor offences (with fines as penalties) for up to four hours without any paperwork. While protective custody laws allow police to detain someone for public drunkenness.
Ms Anthony said Indigenous Australians arrested under these two laws are often those most in need of a welfare check.
“The whole idea of taking them into custody is due to their vulnerability,” she said.
“Intoxication puts them in an unsafe position where maybe being left out in public would expose them to harm, so the idea behind putting them in police custody is so someone keeps an eye on them.”
The Royal Commission recommended a custody notification service be established in 1991, but it was not until late last year that the federal government allocated funding to the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA) to start the service.
The Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement chief executive, Cheryl Axleby, told NITV News the CNS was also a crucial step to getting Indigenous people in custody access to a legal representative.
“The biggest issue is we have the highest remand rates for our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, so there may also be opportunities for our mob to have bail,” she said.
“It’s also an independent checking mechanism for our people in custody, because we’ve gone through a lot of incidents where our people might be injured during arrest and they’re not treated, or they could be intoxicated and they’re not properly assessed.”
A spokesperson for Nicole Manison, the NT Minister for Police, Fire, and Emergency Services, said the CNS is funded on a three-year agreement between the federal government and NAAJA.
“NAAJA and the Northern Territory Police Force worked together to shape the custody model. They also worked together on a Memorandum of Understanding ... of detainee safety,” she said.
“While protective custody and paperless arrests are not included in the scope of the custody notification service, Northern Territory Police are absolutely committed to the best possible safety for all detainees.”