November 13, 2019

Indigenous rights

What really happened at Yuendumu?

By Russell Marks
Image of police station in Alice Springs with red handprints on wall

Protesters left red handprints outside the Alice Springs police station following the death of Kumanjayi Walker in Yuendumu. Source: Twitter

The promised inquiries must answer the biggest questions raised by the police shooting of an Aboriginal man

By Monday morning, Northern Territory Police and its association (the NTPA) had a version of events they hoped would explain why officers had to shoot and kill 19-year-old Kumanjayi Walker in his family’s home in Yuendumu.

Two police officers went into the house on Saturday evening, they said, to arrest Mr Walker for (allegedly) breaching his suspended sentence. This occurred against a backdrop of unrest that had seen staff at the Yuendumu Community Health Centre request evacuation following a series of break-ins during which two staff had been “attacked”. During the ensuing altercation Mr Walker is alleged to have stabbed one of the officers in the shoulder. It was during this struggle that the officer shot Mr Walker – three times – presumably in self-defence. Police retreated with Mr Walker into their station and bunkered down, waiting for both the ambulance and backup from the Territory Response Group. Mr Walker died soon afterwards.

“This incident highlights the incredibly dangerous environment police work in, every day, to keep communities in the Northern Territory safe,” said NTPA president Paul McCue in a statement. And there we have it. Yuendumu is a violent place. Police manage the risks inherent in their dangerous jobs. One of them was assaulted and reacted in self-defence. Case closed.

Except it isn’t. Police took some time arriving at the account they eventually offered. The “stab”, for instance, had initially been a “lunge”. Presumably police knew the officer had been stabbed from the beginning. So why downplay it, knowing that Mr Walker’s family and community – and the nation – would be demanding an explanation for the shots that were fired?

Much of the immediate factual dispute could be cleared up when the officers’ body-cam footage is seen. (I saw dozens of body-cam videos while lawyering in the NT until earlier this year, including more than a few that departed radically from police officers’ sworn statements.) Police protocol requires the officers to have switched on their cameras before they entered the house. If they did, the footage would be more or less automatically uploaded to a central repository. If they didn’t, the officers won’t face any major consequences. But it would be extraordinary for all officers involved to have neglected to turn their cameras on.

The footage, though, won’t answer the biggest questions about what happened on Saturday night in Yuendumu. Did the officers need to enter the house to effect Mr Walker’s arrest, for instance? Breaching a suspended sentence could mean anything from committing a new, violent crime to merely breaching a condition that he sign into a police station. Police consider themselves duty-bound to arrest a person for any breach – no matter how minor – and bring them before a court. But there are many ways to effect an arrest. Far too often, police in the NT simply barge into people’s homes in large numbers. On one occasion, six officers entered the house of one of my clients to arrest him on a warrant for not appearing in court as a witness. Sometimes barging in is necessary (if, for instance, the person is being violent). Much more often it’s not, and police risk their own and others’ safety by doing so; given the way too many officers escalate tense situations in the NT, that there aren’t more tragedies like this one is often testament to the restraint shown by suspects and communities. We don’t know why police felt the need to storm in on Saturday. Did they try to broker the arrest with Mr Walker’s family members first? Could it have waited until the following morning?

Another set of questions relates to whether police should even carry guns in Aboriginal communities. Some suggest they contribute to a bellicose attitude and culture among officers, for whom the gun becomes a reason to bypass other tactics that rely on relationship-building. The last NT police officer who shot and killed a person in a remote community was acting sergeant Robert Whittington who, in 2002, had been posted in Wadeye for less than a week before dozens of locals began fighting with weapons on the main oval. Unlike the remote sergeant he briefly replaced, Whittington never went anywhere without his Glock pistol. Carmen Butcher, a constable who had lived in Wadeye for nearly a year, and who played softball with the local women on weekends and went fishing at surrounding outstations at the invitation of traditional owners, felt no need to take her gun to the oval. Whittington did take his gun and, tragically, shot and killed an 18-year-old man – Robert Jongmin – who was trying to disarm another youth.

Why, on Saturday evening, did police not use a less lethal weapon – like a taser or spray – instead of a pistol? It’s difficult to imagine a scenario in which those weapons would not have been as effective at containing whatever danger Mr Walker was posing, even if the stabbing story is accurate. The questions about guns lead into broader queries about the role of police – who are mostly not Aboriginal and often very inexperienced – in Aboriginal communities. Last year, community unrest in Kalkaringi was not helped – and was perhaps even largely caused – by the presence of two young police officers who, according to people who lived there, were frequently brandishing their pistols and provoking confrontations. Kalkaringi’s community leaders made repeated representations to have the officers replaced; by the time they were, a number of men had been charged and imprisoned for allegedly threatening violence against the officers. In the aftermath in Yuendumu, TRG members patrolled the community carrying assault rifles. The Warlpiri Youth Development Aboriginal Corporation (WYDAC), based in Yuendumu, alleged that police drove “at speed through a large crowd who had gathered near the airstrip when a plane landed”.

And why, after the shooting, was there no medical assistance available in Yuendumu? The initial explanation – that health workers had been evacuated following an “attack” during a break-in – requires interrogation. Most break-ins in communities are perpetrated by bored kids looking for food or alcohol, though Yuendumu residents have been lodging complaints about the health centre for years. But did the Yuendumu break-ins really require the evacuation of non-Indigenous health staff? It’s very unlikely the local Aboriginal health workers were evacuated. Why weren’t they brought into the police station after Mr Walker was shot?

The reason police bunkered down inside the station and refused to speak with community elders is likely the same reason the Royal Flying Doctors Service failed to send a plane: the expectation that locals would react violently to Mr Walker's death. Managers at the clinic, the police and the RFDS would no doubt claim their responses – or lack of them – accorded with protocol. But on Saturday night, Mr Walker’s family members waited peacefully outside the police station for news of the 19-year-old’s status. The expectation that Aboriginal people and communities are violent and impulsive is common and clearly racist. In this case, it appears to have prevented a basic humane response. We can’t know, yet, whether it might have made a difference.

Police and the other institutions of NT justice will need to work hard to avoid and refute expectations – already widely anticipated – that the investigation into Kumanjayi Walker’s death will be a “whitewash”. In response, NT Police have already promised their investigation will be overseen by both Western Australian police and the NT’s anti-corruption commissioner, and the NT coroner will eventually conduct his own independent investigation. There are reasons for concern. Sixteen-year-old John Pat was killed in a vicious assault by four off-duty police officers in Karratha in September 1983. Eighteen-year-old Robert Jongmin was shot and killed in Wadeye in October 2002. Thirty-six-year-old Cameron Doomadgee had four broken ribs, a liver almost cleaved in two and a ruptured spleen when he died in a police cell on Palm Island in 2004. Seventeen-year-old Thomas “T.J.” Hickey was impaled on a fence post while he was being chased by police in Sydney in 2004. Twenty-nine-year-old Joyce Clarke died after police shot her in the stomach in Geraldton less than two months ago. But legislative, courtroom and police failures have meant that no police officer has ever been held responsible for any violent and unnecessary death of an Aboriginal person in his or her custody.

Russell Marks

Russell Marks is a lawyer and an adjunct research fellow at La Trobe University. He is the author of Crime and Punishment: Offenders and Victims in a Broken Justice System (Black Inc., 2015). 

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