In 1977 the small Warlpiri township of Lajamanu was about as remote a place in this country as you could get. About 900 kilometres from the major Northern Territory centres of Darwin and Alice Springs, Lajamanu, then known to most but the locals as Hooker Creek, was at the end of very long and very rough dirt roads that would often be closed by floods and wash-aways for months on end.
In many respects Lajamanu, like many bush towns in the NT then perhaps as now, was seen as a lawless backwater—at least in the non-Aboriginal sense. Few recognised—again then as now—that most if not all of the Aboriginal people living in Lajamanu lived their day-to-day lives according to their own laws and not the laws made in Darwin and Canberra.
For NT Police officers many of these towns were seen as punishment posts. That is not to say that all Police saw these towns that way—there are some Police—far too few for mine—who will always be willing to spend the time to build local relationships and use enforcement of non-Aboriginal law as a means and not an end.
The coppers that take that approach are usually described by locals as “good coppers”—hard-but-fair men and women who will turn a blind eye at the right time in order to create trust and to truly serve the community within which they live and work. Much like good Police would do anywhere really.
But Constable David Jennings wasn’t that sort of cop. As he told the NT News in October 1978, before he landed in Lajamanu he’d been with the NT Police Force for four and a half years—including a stint on Groote Eylandt in the Gulf of Carpentaria (another punishment post) and he’d previously worked as a Military Policeman for a year and with the South Australian Police for three and a half years.
One day in late July 1977 Constable Jennings was asked by the local council to stop a truckload of wine flagons from entering the town. Jennings intercepted the truck carrying the grog and told the driver to stop in front of the Lajamanu Store, where he ordered that the 70 flagons of wine be offloaded out front. Jennings then grabbed his personal 12 gauge pump action shotgun—not a NT Police-issue firearm but one later described as a “Los Angeles-style” riot gun—and proceeded to blast the flagons into shards. Three locals, perhaps more, suffered injuries from the flying glass.
That same store had been selling t-shirts—apparently often worn by Jennings—bearing the slogan “Ku Klux Klan, NT division.” Another shirt had an image of an NT Police “paddy-wagon” carrying Aboriginals and bore the words “Hooker Creek Taxi Service.”
A month later Constable Jennings was at it again. As they are wont to do from time to time, some local juveniles got up to sufficient mischief to attract the attention of the police. Jennings rounded nine of them up and, after fixing horse-hobbles to their ankles in full view of the community, put them to work as an impromptu chain gang weeding the town’s gardens for the day,. All the while a local police tracker stood guard over them with a “decent sized waddy.”
Of course this behaviour didn’t go unnoticed and in October 1977 Pam Ditton, a solicitor from the Central Australian Aboriginal Legal Aid Service (CAALAS), following a visit to Lajamanu to attend the circuit court from her base in Alice Springs, wrote to the NT Police Commissioner Bill McLaren and to the Country Liberal Party’s Majority Leader in the NT Legislative Assembly (and after Self Government in July 1978, the NT’s first Chief Minister) Paul Everingham. In her letter Pam Ditton made several allegations of theft against one of the Lajamanu police officers and provided detailed allegations against Jennings about the riot gun and the chain gang.
In November 1977 Jack Doolan, member of the NT Legislative Assembly for the seat of Victoria River, far to the south-west of Darwin, tabled a petition in the Assembly on behalf of his constituents at “Palumpa, Port Keats, Kildurk Station, Wave Hill, Dagaragu, Hooker Creek and Victoria River Downs” who were:
… deeply concerned that some members of the Northern Territory Police Force habitually and constantly refer to Aboriginal Australians as coons or niggers which we resent. Your petitioners therefore humbly pray that the Assembly urge the Honourable Majority Leader and Cabinet Member for Police [Paul Everingham] to request the Commissioner for Police in the Northern Territory to instruct his officers to desist from using such derogatory terms so that they may give good example to the general public whom they serve and in future refer to us as Aboriginals, and your petitioners as in duty bound will ever pray.
Not much seems to have happened about these matters during the long-hot summer months of 1977 but in early February 1978 the MLA for Victoria River, Jack Doolan—whose electorate included Lajamanu—caught the attention of the Canberra Times, which repeated the allegations contained in Pam Ditton’s letter under the headline “Nine Aboriginal teenagers in chain gang”.
In Assembly sittings later that month Country Liberal Party MLA Roger Vale bowled up a dixer on a “recent incident at Hooker Creek” to Paul Everingham. Everingham referred to the minor theft complaints and then turned to the allegations concerning the shot-gunning of the 70 wine flagons and the chain-ganging of the nine teenagers, noting that these matters had been investigated by a team of two NT Police Inspectors, a Detective-Sergeant and a Detective-Constable.
Everingham told the Assembly the Police investigation had found the theft allegations to be without substance and not warranting further action. But the shot-gun and chain-gang incidents were different matters altogether and Everingham advised the Assembly that in regard to both matters the opinion of the NT Solicitor-General was that while “there was no criminal charge which could profitably be laid” in both instances Constable Jennings was “guilty of a serious error of judgement.”
The following day Jack Doolan elaborated on Everingham’s comments, reading into the Hansard much of the content of Pam Ditton’s October 1977 letter and that of her colleague’s follow-up letter to Everingham of February 1978. Doolan also read some statements from locals that he’d met with over the summer, who related their desire to “get rid” of Constable Jennings from Lajamanu because, among other things, “… that policeman chained those kids up, muluka, just like dogs.”
Doolan went on to note that all those in Jennings’ chain gang were tribally initiated, i.e. in the Warlpiri world they were regarded as grown men, and that Constable Jennings’ conduct caused they and their families to “feel ashamed.” Doolan described Jennings’ behaviour as ” … the insane actions of a person who gives every indication of being a psychopath.”
Everingham responded to Doolan’s comments, noting that the letters from Pam Ditton and her CAALAS colleague might not be admissible as evidence in any court proceedings and foreshadowing that, while Constable Jennings’ conduct might not attract criminal charges, it may be possible to lay departmental, i.e. NT Police, charges and that they were the subject of “active consideration.”
The events at Lajamanu attracted national attention in The Weekend Australian of 4 & 5 March 1978, where David Trounce traversed the history of the many iniquities visited upon the Warlpiri over time, including the notorious Coniston massacre of 1928 that resulted in the wholesale abandonment by the Warlpiri of much of their traditional country following Police reprisal shootings across much of the Tanami Desert.
David Trounce related much of the content of the CAALAS letters and the hansard material from both Everingham and Doolan. He noted that NT Police Commissioner Bill Mclaren was “still studying the enquiry report before deciding what action, if any, would be taken against Constable Jennings.”
Next – in Part 2 I will examine the NT Police charges laid against Constable Jennings and the remarkable events that followed.