Community advocates are calling on ACT police to address 'major gaps' in the way they deal with First Nations communities, following the release of a report by Commonwealth and ACT Ombudsman Michael Manthorpe into ACT Policing.
The report examined police engagement with the territory's Indigenous community, focusing on the effectiveness of programs, policies, procedures and training.
"We observed a number of gaps in ACT Policing’s policy framework where either no policy or procedure exists, or where an existing policy or procedure was incomplete," the report reads.
"There are currently no written policies or procedures for members to reference when conducting a field contact, carrying out an arrest, or referring an individual to the Front Up program or the Police Community Youth Club."
Notably, the report found officers did not have to ask whether a person identified as Indigenous before conducting a formal interview. This failure to collect accurate data could prevent the use of the Custody Notification Service (CNS) when an Indigenous person is arrested, according to Aboriginal Legal Service NSW/ACT CEO Karly Warner.
"... the repercussions are very, very serious, up to and including the death of Aboriginal people"
"I mean this is a life-saving custody notification service... If police don't know that people are Aboriginal, they're not going to have that opportunity to actually speak to a representative from the Aboriginal legal services before police are indeed planning on interviewing them," she told NITV News.
"There is a reason that the CNS exists and was a recommendation of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody, of course it is in relation to making sure that people have access to culturally safe, legal help, but it's also about making sure that they are safe when they are taken into the care of the state or the territory."
Ms Warner said stronger legislation was required to mandate police officers to record Indigenous identity accurately.
"We know that things have to be mandated to ensure that there isn't anyone slipping through the cracks because the repercussions are very, very serious and up to and including actually the death of Aboriginal people," she said.
Concerns were also raised around the fact ACT Police deals with complaints internally, and without the oversight of an independent body.
The ACT Council of Social Service (ACTCOSS) said the findings prevented a proper assessment of the force's biases and over-policing.
“The lack of strategic direction, procedural guidelines or reporting parameters for engagement with Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander communities is indicative of a systemic failure to serve these communities fairly and appropriately," ACTCOSS CEO Dr Emma Campbell said in a statement.
Indigenous people in the ACT are locked up at at 19 times the rate of non-Indigenous people and make up 24 per cent of the territory's average daily prisoner population, according to recent data from the The Productivity Commission.
“While the causes of overrepresentation of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander peoples in the justice system are complex, policing attitudes and approaches are a contributing factor," Dr Campbell said.
The report found the police force struggled with a lack of cultural training programs, which were not delivered adequately or regularly, and it also raised questions around whether community Elders had been consulted in the development of that training.
The report gave nine recommendations, including better consultation with community and development of procedures which were consistent with legal requirements.
In a statement, ACT Policing said it will work closely with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community to address the recommendations.
Ms Warner said they need to be adopted in full, in collaboration with organisations like Winnunga Nimmityjah Aboriginal Health Service.
"There's always an opportunity I think for a lack of accountability. And what is really critical here I think is that the ACT government (and) ACT police respond to these recommendations wholeheartedly," Ms Warner said.
"There needs to be a lot more work done in the ACT and as we know, I don't think any police jurisdiction across this country is immune from the systemic racism that permeates all of them."
Review into ACT Justice System
A separate, independent review into the over-representation of Indigenous Australians in the ACT's justice system was a key promise at the last Territory election. Dr Campbell says it's time a date for the inquiry was set.
"They've once again reiterated that it will be implemented in this period of government, but we're yet to have a date. And that's why we are pushing this government to to announce the date of the inquiry, with some urgency," she said.
Advocates said the inquiry is long overdue, particularly in light of horrific allegations that an Indigenous woman and sexual assault survivor was strip-searched by prison staff in "full view" of male inmates, at the Alexander Maconochie Centre in Canberra.
The incident has been referred to the inspector of correctional services.