The 39-year-old, known only as Noomba for cultural reasons, died in Townsville on February 10 after what police have described as an "altercation" with officers. It was the second Indigenous death in custody in the north Queensland city in six months.
Stewart Levitt, one of the lawyers representing Noomba's family, has issued a scathing criticism of the officers' actions in the moments preceding and following the death.
"Levitt Robinson will be seeking justice and appropriate compensation for the family who were traumatised by seeing their husband and father die under the weight of police force," he said in a statement.
Mr Levitt says Noomba's wife, Regina Matheson, called paramedics and police to prevent her husband from suiciding. Instead, Mr Levitt alleges she was left watching, calling out "he can't breathe" as police "spear-tackled" her husband "with his face pressed in the dirt". Lawyers claim Ms Matheson told police that Noomba had a pre-existing heart condition and a history of substance abuse.
"This is not the way you deal with a sick man who was not threatening police - or anyone else - and who was not acting aggressively," said Mr Levitt.
"He needed to be counselled and sedated."
Townsville Police Chief Superintendent Kev Guteridge said Noomba had lost consciousness during a "reasonably routine" callout.
"Despite extensive attempts by police and paramedics to revive the man prior to his transport to Townsville Hospital, those attempts were unsuccessful and unfortunately, the man was unable to be revived and tragically lost his life," he said on Saturday.
Stewart Levitt claims the family was treated "roughly and insensitively" following the incident, with police ordering Ms Matheson and her children to leave their home shortly after informing them of Noomba's death. Mr Levitt says there was no Aboriginal social worker to support the family at the Townsville Hospital.
The Sydney lawyer alleges that police have yet to share CCTV footage taken from a neighbour's property and stressed that the incident must be "diligently investigated".
"It is the discretionary decisions made by investigating officers at the early stages following a violent death in which police are suspects, which make it considerably more or less likely that charges will be appropriately laid, if warranted, and a prosecution successfully undertaken," said Mr Levitt, whose law firm helped Lex Wotton win a landmark racial discrimination case against the Queensland government.
"This is not only a police matter. It says something about our social values, that we have been prepared to tolerate for so long, so many Indigenous deaths in custody which have been under-investigated, under-prosecuted and invariably unpunished, all over Australia."
There have been almost 400 Indigenous deaths in custody since a royal commission into the issue handed down its findings, along with 339 recommendations, in 1991.
As with any death in custody, the latest incident in Townsville will be examined by a coronial inquest.
A Queensland police spokesperson declined to comment further, as the matter is currently under investigation.
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