Indigenous parliamentarians have called for the sacking of police and nurses involved in the preventable death in custody of Yamatji woman, Ms Dhu.
The 22-year-old woman died after she was locked up in South Hedland police station in Western Australia for two days for not paying fines in 2014.
An inquest into the death found Ms Dhu continuously screamed in pain while an infection from a previous broken rib spread to her lungs, but police dismissed her as drug-affected.
Security footage captured distressing vision of Ms Dhu being handcuffed, dragged and ridiculed from her cell, less than two hours before her death because she could no longer stand, and was labelled as just another ‘junkie’ by police officers.
Liberal MP and Australia’s first Indigenous lower house member, Ken Wyatt, said those involved need to be held to account.
“People should have to pay some form of penalty for failing to meet their obligations,” Ken Wyatt said.
“Based on what I’ve seen from the police commissioner he has made a statement saying that they have been dealt with but I don’t think it goes far enough given that we’ve lost a woman from a community, a woman who was loved by her family, and someone who didn’t deserve to be treated in the way that she was.”
The coalition minister was outraged Ms Dhu was taken to hospital three times in the space of 48 hours, but was released back into custody with health staff echoing police sentiments about drug use.
“There should be a set of standards for triage of any person who enters hospital from a custodial setting, had that been applied in this instance then Ms Dhu would have had her temperature taken, certainly her pulse checked, her blood pressure taken, and they would have seen that there was something wrong,” he said.
“Which means that the nurses and the doctors involved would have examined her as opposed to listening to the opinion of somebody else.
“There is no excuse for not following through with an appropriate triage process, so as well as police, the WA country health services need to be held to account, and there should be some action taken against both the nurses and doctors for their failure to meet their obligations within a health context.”
The coroner investigating the death, Ros Fogliani, found Ms Dhu would still be alive if medical staff and police had heeded her repeated complaints of severe pain.
Mr Wyatt, who is Assistant Minister for Health and Aged Care in the Turnbull government, said it was hard to find any excuse for the “abhorrent” behaviour of the people who came in contact with Miss Dhu in custody and during her three visits to hospital.
“Miss Dhu died because two departments — police and health — failed in their duty,” he said.
“But nobody is being penalised or sacked for their lack of fundamental care. And those two police officers have got off with light taps on the wrist…despite demonstrating they’ve not met the obligations for which they were employed.
“I just find when I look at that video, and I’ve looked three or four times now, I can’t comprehend how you can do that to anybody, and as a parent I especially wouldn’t want to look at a video and see my son or daughter being dragged and having their head bumped and then dropped into the back of a police van” he said.
“It was obvious she was in pain and we should stop making assumptions that it is drug related, she lived in a DV relationship, she would have had a history of episodes that the police should have been aware of in that town but that wasn’t taken into account, but the way in which she was manhandled was appalling, there should have been at least a stretcher, and equally an ambulance given her condition.”
State opposition Aboriginal affairs spokesman Ben Wyatt, who is related to Ken Wyatt, said his Liberal counterpart “is absolutely correct in what he says”.
Both men have called for disciplinary action, which directly contradicts West Australian Premier Colin Barnett, who said at the weekend that the officers at the lockup were in a difficult situation.
“Well it depends on what you define as difficult, but in this circumstance when you look at that video…common sense of humanity should have prevailed and an appropriate way of taking her to the hospital is something that had obviously not even been contemplated.”
Ben and Ken Wyatt have said they would write to Mr Barnett asking him “to establish standards by which people must abide” in West Australian lockups.
Miss Dhu’s family is angry that Coroner Fogliani did not recommend in her findings that police or medical staff face action over their handling of the situation during the three days she was in their custody or care.