A death in Brewarrina
Gomeroi man Peter Gibbs will never forget the day he got the call that something terrible had happened to his sister.
“I’ll never forget that day. She died in a cell in her own town,” he says in his Dubbo home.
It was 1997 and Fiona Gibbs had died in a police lockup in the outback New South Wales town of Brewarrina.
It shocked the small Aboriginal community in Brewarrina. But the tragic experience of a death in custody was not strange to the town.
Almost ten years earlier, nearly to the day, Aboriginal man Lloyd Boney hanged himself in police custody in Brewarrina.
It caused a riot which pitted the town’s Aboriginal people against the police.
And riot was on the minds of people again in 1997 in the wake of Fiona Gibbs’ death.
Locals came to the Gibbs family in their grief and offered to “burn Brewarrina to the ground”, according to Peter Gibbs.
“It would’ve been quite easy to take on the cops and to vent our frustrations, and take out our anger on all this uncertainty around her death,” he says.
But they did not want Fiona Gibbs’ to be remembered in her death as the cause of a riot.
“My dad and I, we had to tell the people that’s not what we want from Fiona’s death, and we wanted something very different. We didn’t know what that was going to be.”
Indigenous Police Recruiting Our Way (IPROWD)
Now, twenty years later, Peter Gibbs can point to scores of Aboriginal people and say they are the living legacy of Fiona Gibbs’ death.
These are the men and women that completed the IPROWD program and are now cops in the New South Wales Police Force.
IPROWD is an intensive academic, fitness and leadership program that can accelerate the path into the NSW Police. It’s not a free ticket, but completing it can fast track the process of being accepted into the NSW Police Academy in Goulburn.
“What happens when there’s a blackfella in a blue uniform, there’s a message that just transcends like no other. It does much more than just having someone in a job. It really is about crime prevention because it’s about our police work with Aboriginal people, and nobody can do that better than Aboriginal people,” Peter Gibbs says proudly.
Some Aboriginal students don’t complete IPROWD. Some do, but find the police force isn’t for them and use it on their journey to join other jobs like a firefighter or prison guard.
It doesn’t worry Peter Gibbs because a job is a job.
“We’re not taking our rightful position in public sector jobs like the police and other emergency services,” he says.
“Those jobs are available for everybody but if you look at the statistics, the only one where we’re really taking over from everybody else is incarceration. That’s a statistics that punches us in the guts.”
Everyone gets yelled at in Goulburn
As the sun shines on the parade ground at the New South Wales Police Academy in Goulburn, over 50 Aboriginal IPROWD students are given a taste of life there.
They’re being yelled at by one of the sergeants in charge of drill. They’re ranks aren’t filled properly, they’re files aren’t straight, and they’re not forming up quickly enough.
The students spent a week in Goulburn living the life of a police recruit: morning parades, classes and fitness sessions.
Among them is 19-year-old Bronty Burhop from the NSW south coast.
She hasn’t committed a crime since she was a young girl.
“I was maybe five or six and I stole a redskin from the newsagency and I get back in the car with mum and she says, ‘Where did you get that from?’, and I said 'I took it from the newsagency'. She told me to take it back in and I would never do that again, I was in so much trouble,” she laughs.
Like so many of the IPROWD students, she wants to be a role model for her people.
“There’s been a lot of suicide and drug abuse within my community and I feel as a police officer I could make a difference,” she says.
“There’s been, to my knowledge and my friendship group, I’ve had probably six people commit suicide which has been quite confronting to me.”
As she’s being yelled at on the parade ground, Sergeant Debra Rowe watches on.
She’s being a cop for over 30 years. Most of it on the street. For the last six years, she has been part of IPROWD.
“I worked in Redfern in the early eighties at the Redfern police station and to have the opportunity to be able to help Aboriginal people to join is a fantastic job, just a blessing,” she says.
Based in Newcastle now, she was there on the night of February 2004 when Redfern’s Aboriginal community rioted.
Aboriginal teenager TJ Hickey lay in hospital in a critical condition after becoming impaled on a fence in Redfern Park. Protesters believed police had chased him to what would become his death.
Police were pelted with fireworks, Molotov cocktails and rocks in the nine-hour riot which left dozens of police officers injured.
“We were just enemies really in those days. We went to war every day and it’s just wonderful to see now Aboriginal people wanting to join the police force,” Sgt Rowe says.
“They relate a lot better to the Aboriginal people; not just the people in custody but the victims and witnesses and it also helps the police to learn more about the Aboriginal culture; to develop more of a respect for these people and where they’ve come from.”