September 28 is John Pat Day. The day when, 33 years ago, John Pat died at the hands of police in Roebourne, Western Australia. This was also the day when the WA coroner considered an application to release CCTV footage of a young Aboriginal woman’s three days in police custody in Port Hedland before she passed away.
At every step of the way, Ms Dhu’s cries for help were ignored.
In placing Ms Dhu into custody, police took her away from the people who loved her.
As a counsel representing multiple media organisations submitted, it is the public’s confidence in the system of justice that will be affected by a decision not to release the footage.
In its written submissions supporting the release of the footage, the Deaths in Custody Watch Committee stated that ‘at no time did Ms Dhu act contrary to her own dignity’.
What we see in the footage is the indignity of the medical staff at the Hedland Health Campus who failed their responsibility to attend to Ms Dhu’s most basic health needs.
Also evident is the indignity of the South Hedland police officers who let Ms Dhu’s head drop onto a concrete bench, who handcuffed her before dragging her out of the cell, who knelt beside her to whisper into her ear ‘you’re just a f**king junkie’, at a time when Ms Dhu could barely raise her head, her body in septic shock.
At no time did Ms Dhu act contrary to her own dignity.
Health staff and police have been given their opportunity to say what was going through their minds throughout their interactions with Ms Dhu. The CCTV footage is the closest thing we have to hearing Ms Dhu’s voice, and its release is the best opportunity to have her experience publicly exposed.
We cannot know if Ms Dhu, may she rest in peace, would want the CCTV footage of her final days released to the world. We cannot even be sure if she was conscious during all the assaults on her dignity. All that we can be certain of is that she wished to live.
We often call for ‘justice’ at our rallies, marches and actions. What exactly is meant by this or how justice can possibly be achieved is hard to pin down.
Aunty Carol Roe and Della Roe have submitted that it would give them some comfort and closure for the footage to be released, and the possibility that some good may come out of the inquest. Indeed, it is the remoteness of the likelihood of obtaining justice through the inquest that has seen Ms Dhu’s family now exercise the right they reserved to have the footage released. In the words of Ms Dhu’s father, it is the release of the footage that will be the act of respect and honouring of his daughter’s memory.
Ms Dhu’s family are visibly tired and distraught at the court proceedings. While the coroner and the litany of lawyers debate the meaning of dignity, the meaning of respect as they relate to Ms Dhu’s memory, they fail to acknowledge that the process itself is disrespectful to Ms Dhu’s family.
To put the family through this, to make them travel to Perth and sit through yet another day in court with no answers, inflicts further trauma on them.
They have said they want the footage released. The family are the people who know best how they would be impacted by the footage and how best to honour Ms Dhu’s memory. Failing to honour the family’s request is disrespectful.
The court room used for the hearing holds fifty members of the public at most, only just enough seats to hold everyone who wished to attend. Court security were directed not to allow anyone to stand, demonstrating the quantifiable limits to the ‘openness’ of this public inquest.
The coroner has suggested that withholding the CCTV footage has not stopped print journalists publishing their accounts of the footage played in court. That is, the principle of open justice is satisfied by those written words.
We have just seen how no action was taken against the torture of children at Don Dale Correctional Centre in the Northern Territory until images of this abuse were screened on television, despite the publication of multiple written reports. This clearly demonstrates that the release of the CCTV footage in Ms Dhu’s case is the only way to guard against abuses.
The footage will be potentially damaging for the Hedland Health Campus and South Hedland Police, as individuals and as public institutions responsible for the care and protection of members of the community. But these institutions will not change unless forced to do so in response to a public outcry.