The findings of an inquest in the Northern Territory into the death of a senior Walpiri man are important reading for those working in the health and justice sectors, highlighting the need for law reform.
Mark Skulley writes:
The Northern Territory Coroner has denounced the so-called “paperless arrest” laws, and called for them to be repealed before more Aboriginal people die in police custody when charged for minor offences.
Mr Cavanagh said the laws, introduced last year, were “manifestly unfair”, and were irreconcilable with the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, which urged that arrest and detention be used as a last resort.
He called for an independent review of responses to alcohol misuse in the Territory, as part of his findings in an inquest into the death of a 59-year old man, Mr Langdon, in the Darwin Watch House on May 21 this year.
The Coroner said it was culturally appropriate to refer to Mr Langdon, a senior Walpiri man who was born in Yuendumu, as Kumanjayi.
“Kumanjayi had the right to die as a free man and in the circumstances he should have done,” the Coroner said. “In my view, unless the paperless arrest laws are struck from the Statute books, more and more disadvantaged Aboriginal people are at risk of dying in custody, and unnecessarily so. That is why I recommend their repeal.”
Kumanjayi was arrested by police under the “paperless arrest scheme” after he was seen drinking from a plastic bottle in Spillet Park. But he was not causing any disruption before or during his arrest and was at all times polite and cooperative.
The maximum penalty for such a minor liquor offence was a spot fine of $74 with the “victim’s levy” of $40, and Kumanjayi was issued with an “on-the-spot fine” for that amount.
Although the offence carried no prison term, Kumanjayi was handcuffed, placed in an iron cage in the back of a police van, presented at the watch house with his arms still handcuffed behind his back, searched, deprived of his property, and detained for some hours in a cell.
The Coroner said Kumanjayi, who had chronic health problems, was placed in the cells at 6.44pm. He went to sleep and a later cell check found he had died at 9.07pm.
Mr Cavanagh found shortcomings in the health check process for Kumanjayi, but was confident they did not contribute to his death.
“While the care and supervision of Kumanjayi was adequate in the circumstances, it is clear that there are enormous pressures on Police and Nurses as a result of the paperless arrest scheme and the police initiative known as Operation Ascari II, which encourages the arrest of public drinkers, almost all of whom are Indigenous,” the Coroner said.
“That increase in the numbers of Indigenous people in custody is likely to lead to a proportionate increase in the numbers of Aboriginal people dying in custody. This has led me to the recommendation that the law should be repealed.”
The Coroner said he was impressed by the “professional and courteous way” that Kumanjayi was handled by police, which was captured on CCTV footage. He also noted “significant improvements” in watch house operations and cooperation with custody nurses who worked “busy shifts”.
He agreed with the submission by lawyers for Kumanjayi’s family that he was an “old man minding his own business, enjoying the company of family and friends in an early evening of the dry season.”
“He had been drinking, but had done nothing to bring himself to the attention of police, beyond being with other Aboriginal people in a park in the Darwin CBD. The only possible reason for his arrest was that he had committed the infringement offence of drinking in a public place.”
Mr Cavanagh found police acted lawfully in arresting Kumanjayi and that the arresting officer was a “sincere and conscientious officer”, who was trying to achieve the goals of the paperless arrest scheme and Operation Ascari II.
But the “implicit message” from the government and senior police command was that Aboriginal people drinking in designated public areas should be taken off the streets for up to four hours or longer if they needed more time to sober up.
“Kumanjayi Langdon, a sick middle aged Aboriginal man, was treated like a criminal and incarcerated like a criminal; he died in a police cell which was built to house criminals. He died in his sleep with strangers in this cold and concrete cell,” the Coroner said.
“He died of natural causes and was always likely to die suddenly due to chronic and serious and serious heart disease but he was entitled to die in peace, in the comfort of family and friends. In my view he was entitled to die as a free man.”
The Coroner noted that Kumanjayi was survived by his wife, children and an extended family.
• Read the Coroner’s findings here.
• Mark Skulley is a freelance journalist. He donated to the #JustJustice crowdfunding campaign, and is also volunteering his time to contribute articles.
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