When someone is arrested and detained, they are likely to experience life-threatening levels of anxiety. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are at much higher risk than the rest of the population, given their increased mistrust of law-enforcement and judicial systems, a by-product of suffering generations of racism and marginalisation.
Since the Custody Notification Service (CNS) was implemented in 2000 in NSW, there had not been a single death of an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander person in a police watch house for sixteen years… until recently. On July 19, 36 year old Rebecca Maher died in the Maitland Police watch house, after the police failed to contact the CNS advocate.
The CNS, a 24-hour legal advice run by the Aboriginal Legal Service (ALS) and funded by the NSW State Government, along with the R U OK phone line, are much-needed lifelines for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in police custody.
Under the NSW Powers and Responsibilities Act (2005), the police must contact the Aboriginal Legal Service whenever they detain an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person.
The detainee is subsequently provided with support, and early legal, health and welfare advice. This has not just led to lives saved, but because anxiety levels have been reduced, it has also led to less Indigenous people convicted in NSW. In contrast, Indigenous conviction rates in Western Australia, the Northern Territory and South Australia are amongst the world’s highest.
One in six Indigenous people in Western Australia and the Northern Territory have been to prison, compared with one in eight in South Australia. One in 13 of Western Australia’s Aboriginal adult males are in prison. Nearly 90 per cent of the Northern Territory’s prison population is comprised of Aboriginal people.
ALS lawyers are trained in identifying suicidal ideation, deescalating anxiety and validating people psychosocially. It is when we are in our direst that people need people. As a suicide prevention researcher, I know first-hand that threats of self-harm and suicide are common and authentic.
In NSW, the CNS responds to nearly 16,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who have been taken into custody. CNS advocates respond to 300 people on average per week, and cost only $526,000 per year – that’s it! Just one coronial inquiry can cost as much. The CNS has saved lives in NSW and the ACT year after year, and assisted thousands of individuals in their grimmest hour. Why, then, is this service not national?
The death of 22-year-old Julieka Dhu in a Western Australian police watch house in August 2014, after being locked up for two days, should have led to the immediate establishment of the CNS in that state.
Ms Julieka Dhu was in custody for unpaid fines totalling $3,622, stemming from various offences, including assaulting an officer. Her death triggered an inquest that found she hadn’t received appropriate medical care. She was shown no compassion in her final hours, and was instead called a 'junkie' by a police sergeant.
Of the officers involved in the incident, 11 received disciplinary letters for failing to follow procedure. The internal investigation found that four of them had “engaged in unprofessional conduct” and their response to Julieka’s deteriorating condition was “…tepid at best…without any sense of urgency … (they) failed to comprehend and respond to the seriousness of the situation.”
A well-trained CNS advocate could have identified the need to hospitalise, as well as pressed for Ms Dhu’s health, welfare and legal rights. Institutional failure cost Ms Dhu her life. Her memory has been betrayed by the Western Australian Government.
Why, then, is this service not national?
What is little-known is that one of the police officers at the watch house was provided with ongoing psychological support and was on suicide watch for some time.
Police officers are among the most elevated risk groups to suicidal ideation. The CNS would relieve police officers from the burden of health and welfare judgments. This would be a welcome change. A police officer once said to me, “We do not want to be making these decisions. We do because we are given no choice. If it works in NSW, (the CNS) will work here too.”
Recently retired NSW Police Commissioner Nick Kaldas once said to me during a discussion about the ‘Forgotten 300’ that the CNS should be a must-do. Famed Mabo barrister, Greg McIntyre considers the custody notification service “an important measure in preventing deaths in custody.”
It is time for police commissioners and police unions to support the implementation of the CNS. If they went public with a call for the CNS, this service would be rolled-out without delay.
If police commissioners and police unions want to get it right for their officers and for society as a whole, they should stand up and speak out. There is no place for silence. Going public often triggers action, where change hasn’t been accomplished through ‘diplomacy’.
The CNS has also been championed by Federal and State politicians. The Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Senator Nigel Scullion has spoken to me about the CNS. He understands the need for it to be rolled out nationally.
When the NSW Government defunded the service, Scullion did not cave into the poor decisions of his colleagues. He saved the CNS in NSW and the ACT by funding it to mid-2019, pulling together $1.8 million from his portfolio.
The CNS has also received support from WA Senator Sue Lines, who knows how desperately her home state needs it. WA Labor has committed to implementing the CNS if elected.
It is when we are in our direst that people need people.
It is time for every State and Territory to do the right thing and implement the CNS. There is no greater legacy than to help people and save lives.
“We do not want this to happen to anyone else. Our families are heartbroken and the pain has not left us,” said Ms Dhu’s relative, Uncle Shaun Harris.
Ms Dhu’s mother, Della Roe said, “My daughter should be with us today. Her loss haunts me each day and it will remain, but it will give me at least an ounce of peace to see the CNS implemented.”
Gerry Georgatos is a suicide prevention researcher, a prison reform and redemptive justice expert and advocate with the Institute for Social Justice and Human Rights (ISJHR). He is a Custody Notification Service campaigner, and has urged the newly elected Northern Territory Government to implement the Custody Notification Service.