• Commissioner Chris Dawson apologised on behalf of WA Police. (Supplied/WA Police)Source: Supplied/WA Police
The top police officer in Western Australia says racism against Aboriginal people needs to end.
NITV Staff Writer

12 Jul 2018 - 10:55 AM  UPDATED 14 Jul 2018 - 2:00 PM

WA Police Commissioner Chris Dawson has delivered an unprecedented speech apologising for the "devastating" mistreatment of Indigenous people by law enforcement. 

The historic comments, timed to coincide with NAIDOC Week, were made at the police headquarters in Perth where the Aboriginal flag was raised for the first time.

The apology was cautiously welcomed by human right groups and Indigenous rights advocates.

“Is that going to be a concrete, solid, ‘sorry’? Or just a light ‘sorry’, like they did with the Stolen Generations?” - Carol Roe, Ms Dhu's Grandmother

Today's event kicked off with a didgeridoo performance, traditional dancers, a smoking ceremony and welcome to country.

"As the legislated protectors of Aboriginal people, police played an important and significant role in contributing to a traumatic history which continues to reverberate today,” Mr Dawson said.

"An example of that history, police officers were tasked with removing parents from their children, part of what we now know as the Stolen Generation.

"I accept that previous laws, practices and policies deeply affected the lives of Aboriginal people, and that police involvement in historical events has led to mistrust in law enforcement."

The police commissioner said the forceful removal of children from their families, land dispossession, violence, incarceration were among the issues that had created conflict between Aboriginal people and police.

"The inter-generational impacts of this suffering continues to impact the welfare of Aboriginal people who are over-represented in our justice system," Mr Dawson said.

Paying with her life: Justice for Julieka Dhu
A young Aboriginal woman lies dying in agony on the floor of a police lock-up while officers laugh, mock her as a “junkie” and accuse her of “faking” her fatal illness. How can this still be happening in Australia, 25 years after the report of the Royal Commission into Black Deaths in Custody was supposed to put an end to it?

'There is more we need to do'

He said WA Police would build a new relationship with Aboriginal people based on respect.

"We cannot change the past but we can learn from it," Mr Dawson said.

“I will take steps to heal historical wounds between police and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people."

He acknowledged the "devastating" actions of police in the past and expressed a desire to work towards reconciliation with Indigenous people.

"But there is more we need to do," he said. "As I speak, I know that Aboriginal youth are more likely to appear in our courts than non-Aboriginal youth."

He cited the WA Police Aboriginal cadet program and the operation of the first entirely Indigenous-run police station, in the remote Aboriginal community of Warakurna, as an example of gaining community respect.

"We want to continue recruiting more Aboriginal police officers, we need a reconciliation action plan to 'improve, further and better the relationship'," he told reporters.

“When my police officers are in the field, I want them to treat Aboriginal people the same way they treat non-Aboriginal people.”

EXCLUSIVE: New footage shows police car appearing to cross road to hit Indigenous teen
Warning: some readers may find this footage disturbing.

Mr Dawson said in the lead-up to his speech, he had received calls from his interstate counterparts but wanted to clarify that his apology applied specifically to Western Australia.

“I don’t want to speak on behalf of other police commissioners; I’m certain that they have a will, but for us and for me, this is Western Australia and I speak on behalf of our police force.”

He has urged police officers to examine their actions each time they deal with an Aboriginal person to ensure they are treated the same an anyone else from a different race.

A 'concrete sorry' or a 'light sorry?'

The comments were welcomed by rights group Amnesty International.

“It is great to see that Commissioner Dawson plans to call out a shameful history of systemic abuse and racism in the WA Police - until today, no one has had the guts to call it for what it is," Amnesty spokesman Rodney Dillon said in a statement.

"We hope that this is the beginning of a better relationship between Aboriginal people and police."

'Cooked' to death: Ten years after shocking death in custody, has anything changed?
Third degree burns: Thrown in a prison van for four hours where temperatures reached 56 degrees and left to 'cook' to death. It’s been a decade since the death of Ngaanyatjarra elder, Mr Ward. The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission described his death as 'cruel, inhumane and degrading'.

Indigenous affairs commentators welcomed the police commissioner's comments, but say actions speak louder than words.

"The apology is well-intentioned but needs to translate to all police throughout the state," said Noongar woman and lawyer Megan Krakouer, from the National Indigenous Critical Response Support Service (NICRS).

"Much is changing and long overdue," said NICRS National Coordinator Gerry Georgatos.

“They’re trying to scrub up their record as the national conversation on Indigenous peoples has shifted. The landscape is changing as more truth-telling is occurring. That has brought to the fore the backwater of Australia that is WA, where the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander incarceration rates are worse than anywhere else in the nation,” he said.

“It’s a bit of an embarrassment that they didn’t have an Aboriginal and or Torres Strait Islander flag up on the poll until today.”

However, Mr Georgatos believes it's a step in the right direction. 

"I was with the assistant police commissioner yesterday and it’s my view they’re bent on the ways forward."

But the grandmother of Ms Dhu, an Aboriginal woman who died in police custody in 2014, said she felt insulted not to have been invited to the event.

“Is that going to be a concrete, solid, ‘sorry’? Or just a light ‘sorry’, like they did with the Stolen Generations?” Carol Roe told NITV News.

"I’m still fighting for my granddaughter’s justice.”

“We all have all to stand up for justice for our people because they [the police] are racist. Especially in WA,” she added.

"The whole world has seen the footage and nothing has been done. This is hard for us, it opens up the wounds again.”