• Ms Dhu's grandmother, Carol Roe, has opened up about the pain of the aftermath of Ms Dhu's death. (AAP)Source: AAP
Is ‘sorry’ enough to ease years of grief caused by systematic mistreatment or the loss of loved ones at the hands of law enforcement?
Rangi Hirini

10 Aug 2018 - 2:43 PM  UPDATED 10 Aug 2018 - 2:43 PM

This is the question many Indigenous families in Western Australia are grappling with - especially those who have been involuntarily thrust into media storms and a coronial inquest following a death in custody.

Last month, the West Australian Police Commissioner Chris Dawson made an unprecedented public apology for the history of "devastating" mistreatment and discrimination of Indigenous people by law enforcement.

“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

The historic comments, timed to coincide with NAIDOC Week, were made at the police headquarters in Perth where the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags were raised for the first time.

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

Given the state’s abysmal history in dealing with Indigenous deaths in custody, coupled with its ongoing, relentless jailing of Aboriginal people over unpaid fines, for many, an apology cannot easily be accepted at face value.

A number of family members have spoken to NITV News for the first time since the WA Police Commissioner’s apology, with many calling for action, ‘not just words’.

The appalling mistreatment of Aboriginal people by WA Police first came to light after the death in custody of John Pat in 1983, which sparked the public outcry that triggered the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

Sixteen-year-old John Pat perished after being beaten to death by a group of off-duty, drunken police officers in Roebourne.

The inquest into black deaths in custody was called in 1987 by then prime minister Bob Hawke to investigate the many, often poorly investigated deaths of Indigenous people while incarcerated or in police custody in the 1980s.

The Royal Commission was expanded twice, in 1988 and 1989. In 1991 it handed down its final report, which included 339 recommendations.

Mick Dodson, who was counsel assisting during the inquiry, told The Point in the context of the 25th anniversary of the inquest, “almost every death that occurred in custody after the Royal Commission recommendations, invoked the non-implementation of at least one recommendation”.

Mr Ward’s death happened in 2008, 17 years after those recommendations we handed down.

A respected Ngaanyatjarra Elder, Mr Ward effectively cooked to death in the back of a police van while he was being transported between two regional towns in the Goldfields.

The inquest into his death concluded the use of pods to transport a detainee long distance was “inhumane”. His death was labelled “wholly unnecessary and avoidable” by a coroner.

Mr Ward’s case highlighted major discrimination issues in the West Australian justice system, including over-policing, denial of bail, inhumane prisoner transport conditions, inadequate training of Justices of the Peace, police and private contractor staff and lack of governmental supervision of contractual duties of the prisoner transport company GSL.

The inquest resulted in recommendations following the coronial investigation, and no one has been criminally charged over Mr Ward’s death. The West Australian Department of Corrective Services and the contracting transport company both pled guilty to WorkSafe charges.

Mr Ward’s cousin, Daisy Ward, has advocated for justice for the last decade. She told NITV News it was good that WA police apologised but the pain caused by the deaths is not easily erased.

“I just want to know if Chris Dawson said ‘sorry’, if that ‘sorry’ is concrete - so that we can work together as one with trust and good relationship,” she said.

“[We should be] working together as one. Never mind we are different colours, we are all the same.”

Ms Daisy is currently living back on her land in the Western Desert in Warakurna, where the state’s first ever solely Aboriginal-run police station is in full operation.

“We got police out there that are really, really good with all the Aboriginal people and working together. And it did change around the lands,” she said.

However, Ms Daisy also explained “the problem is pain is still there”.

The Aboriginal Elder says remote towns have many issues and she would like to see a higher police presence in her community - especially more Aboriginal police officers.

“Kids go hungry, that’s why they go around stealing things from houses and breaking in,” she said.

“So many problems coming in from town: drugs, something else what we don’t know, people tell me so many things, we need more policing out here.”

But Ms Daisy believes that police need to focus on cultural awareness training to gain the trust of the community.

“The cultural awareness before coming out here and unknowing how to be friendly, how to have trust and how you can work together as good relationship,” she added.

Unpaid fines

The death in custody of Yamatji woman Ms Dhu was another case that shocked the nation.

In 2014, Ms Dhu was arrested over unpaid fines and processed at South Hedland police station in the Pilbara. Her fines totalled $3,622, with the police calculating she would need to spend four days in jail to pay off her fines.

Despite telling police she was in severe pain from previously broken ribs, she was continually dismissed as someone going through drug withdrawals. This included medical staff who assessed her on two different days.

The next day, the severely ill Ms Dhu who in lying on the floor of the cell. Officers pulled her up to a sitting position, but Ms Dhu slipped, hitting her head on the concrete floor. She was then dragged and carried by two officers into the police van.

Police thought she was faking it, but she was having a heart attack. And she was pronounced dead at hospital.

Two years later a West Australian coroner handed down a damaging assessment of the police’s treatment of the Yamataji woman.

"The behaviour towards her by a number of police officers was unprofessional and inhumane. Their behaviour was affected by preconceptions they had formed about her," the coroner said.

Coroner Fogliani released 11 recommendations after his inquest. They included cultural competency training, amendments to the fines laws, alternatives to imprisonment, and consideration of a Custody Notification Service.

On the day of the Police Commissioner’s apology, Ms Dhu’s grandmother Nanna Carol Roe questioned the commissioner’s apology.

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

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

Nanna Carol says she wanted to be invited to the ceremony, so did Ms Dhu’s uncle Shaun Harris. But unlike Nanna Carol, Uncle Shaun says he wouldn’t have attended.

"It was just another tokenistic publicity stunt.”

“As far as I'm personally concerned it's just another Sorry Day and nothing is gonna happen," he told NITV News.

Mr Harris believes it's hard for both the Aboriginal community to move forward in its relationship with the WA Police when 'racist' laws are ensuring the continuation of the overrepresentation of Aboriginal people in prison.

"One of the main core reasons is … the institutional racism that's still deeply ingrained and flourishes to this day," he explained.

"Our main core problem would be the unpaid fines issue, which is a massive human rights breach, because they're jailing people and incarcerating more black people due to poverty."

Unfortunately for many West Australians, imprisonment over unpaid fines is still occurring despite Coroner Fogliani’s recommendation to amend the law.

To this day, West Australians are still being jailed as a means of paying off their fines, with each day behind bars equalling to approximately $250.

NITV News asked the West Australian Attorney General John Quigley when the amendments will be implemented, with a spokesperson saying a bill will be put to state parliament by the end of the year.

“The Attorney is still working on a package of reforms/initiatives aimed at reducing the rate of incarceration, particularly among Aboriginal people,” the spokesperson said in a statement.

'Judged by actions and deeds'

Commissioner Dawson told NITV News the community’s reaction to his apology has been overwhelming.

“I have received a positive response to my NAIDOC Week speech and that’s been the reaction from Indigenous and non-Indigenous people,” he said in a statement.

“While I believe my speech was an important moment in time, it will be judged over time by actions and deeds,” he said.

Dr Hannah McGlade, a Senior Indigenous Research Fellow at Curtin University, attended the apology. The proud Noongar woman has a background in Indigenous human rights.

“Saying sorry if the beginning of a better relationship but it has to go much further than this,” she told NITV News.

“We don’t want this to be tokenistic measures, we want them to be grounded in meaningful commitment and partnership, working arrangements between police and Aboriginal people, and the Commissioner needs to continue his leadership.”

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