Another Preventable Death: Ms Dhu Vs WA Police And Australia-At-Large


The ongoing inquest into the death of Ms Dhu is welcome. But a broader inquiry into national behaviour is long overdue, writes Alister McKeich.

In 2014, 22-year-old Ms Dhu died in police custody in South Hedland, Western Australia. The autopsy found Ms Dhu passed away from pneumonia, septicaemia and complications from a previous rib fracture.

A recent coronial inquest found that the police officers charged with her care thought she was faking the illnesses, told her to ‘shut up’, and laughed at her as she choked on her own vomit.

Ms Dhu was carried ‘like a dead kangaroo’ into a paddy wagon, and taken to the health clinic for the third time, where she passed away from cardiac arrest.

Ms Dhu was in police custody for unpaid fines of $3,622.

At this point, it’s almost needless to state that Ms Dhu was an Aboriginal woman. When reporting deaths in custody, sadly, Aboriginality is almost a given. Despite an extensive (and expensive – around $40m) Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody in 1990, Aboriginal Australians still die in custody on a regular basis.

The Royal Commission included 339 recommendations in its conclusion; however, the issue boiled down to one very simple fact: ‘the conclusions are clear… Aboriginal people in custody are more likely to die than others in custody because the Aboriginal population is grossly over-represented in custody.’

The short (and seemingly obvious) answer is, then: if there were less Aboriginal people in jail, there would be less deaths in custody. However, since the Royal Commission released its report in 1990, we have failed Aboriginal people even at this first juncture.

In 2014, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) found that Aboriginal inmates made up 86 per cent of the total prison population in the Northern Territory.

Nationally, in 2012, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were 15 times more likely to be incarcerated than non-Aboriginal people.

Most recently, a Productivity Commission report cited a 57 per cent rise overall in Aboriginal incarceration in the previous 15 years. This is consistent with current evidence that also demonstrates Aboriginal deaths in custody growing steadily in the last 20 years alongside the soaring rates of Aboriginal incarceration.

That Ms Dhu was jailed for to court-ordered unpaid fines, and died as a result, is simply unacceptable under the recommendations of the Royal Commission, which aim to keep Aboriginal Australians out of jail.

Yet in Western Australia, people with unpaid fines can opt to spend a day in jail for every $250 worth of fines – a law which clearly targets the poor, has resulted in increased numbers of Aboriginal people in custody, and sadly, entrenches jail time as a social norm within Aboriginal communities.

Upon her incarceration, numerous internal factors led to Ms Dhu’s death: police mistreatment, medical staff indifference, institutional racism, poor systems management and lack of familial consultation – Ms Dhu’s grandmother Carol Roe reportedly phoned the station twice but police refused to let her speak with her granddaughter.

The Deaths in Custody Watch Committee has called for national action, which includes regular and culturally competent communication from police to families, no imprisonment for non-payment of fines, and an independent inquiry into systemic racism in the justice system.

The Committee have also reiterated recommendations from the Royal Commission, including 24-hour legal advice and custody notification line, 24-hour medical coverage and on-call medical assistance at watch houses and lock-ups.

Currently, 24-hour custody notification services are only operational in Victoria, ACT and New South Wales. The New South Wales Aboriginal Legal Service states that, ‘significantly, there have been no Aboriginal deaths in police cell custody since the CNS [Custody Notification Services] began’ in 2000.

At the cost of detaining two juvenile offenders per year, the NSW ALS states that its Custody Notification Service assists over 15,000 Aboriginal people per year.

It is clear that had culturally appropriate legal and medical services been notified of Ms Dhu’s incarceration and condition, her death could have been prevented. Similarly, culturally competent family consultation should have also been conducted – instead, her family were refused contact.

The key here is cultural competency: Ms Dhu’s treatment at the hands of police and medical staff could not be described as anything but indifferent, racist and cruel. It is clear that a national movement to highlight police treatment of Aboriginal people is required.

Yet there are also systemic societal failures that lead to Aboriginal incarceration in the first instance. The Royal Commission acknowledged this, stating, “it is important that we understand the legacy of Australia’s history, as it helps to explain the deep sense of injustice felt by Aboriginal people [and]their disadvantaged status today.”

The Royal Commission report also concluded that “Aboriginal people remember this history and it is burned into their consciousness”, reflecting the deep trauma colonisation has had on Aboriginal communities.

Inter-generational trauma is the inherited collective trauma experienced by a group over a period of time, reflected in a range of physical, psychological and social indicators. It is evident that in both historic and current contexts, Aboriginal communities have been subject to both collective and individual traumas, resulting in the ‘cascading’ effects of inter-generational trauma.

Essentially, just as wealth, education and power are inherited amongst the privileged, equally so is poverty, poor health, fractured families and substance abuse among the disenfranchised.

It is clear that such historical trauma played a part in Ms Dhu’s initial incarceration: poverty, poor health, substance abuse and a physically abusive relationship were all factors that were reported and must all be taken into consideration.

This is the legacy of colonisation, a manifestation of an indifferent, racist society.

If the recent conduct of the Australian public towards Adam Goodes is anything to go by, or that a Pitjantjatjara woman was told to ‘speak English’ on Invasion Day, Australia as a nation must address its attitudes towards Aboriginal people in order to rectify the traumas that have been wrought upon Aboriginal communities.

While calls for a national movement against police mistreatment against Aboriginal people are both vital and necessary, calls for a national movement against systemic societal mistreatment of Aboriginal people must be voiced as well.

An approach that centres on incarceration prevention as well as custody care on this issue is vital to preventing further Aboriginal deaths in custody.

While the inquest will continue with police inquiries in March 2016, perhaps this should also be the year where Australia holds an inquest into its ongoing colonisation.

Ali MC is a musician, writer and photographer.