NATIONAL: MICHAEL BRULL* evaluates the NT government’s new position on grog following the findings of the Kwementyaye Briscoe inquest.
In some countries, the institutionalisation of racism would be controversial. In a civilised country, where racism was regarded as a bad thing, one would expect a public outcry.
Australia, however, is a different type of country.
We saw this with the passing of the Intervention for five years, and then Stronger Futures for a further ten years.
And we are now witnessing it with the latest moves of the Northern Territory government.
Reported in the Australian (October 19, 2012), it began by noting that the “threat of mandatory rehabilitation will be used to intentionally push problem street drunks out of public view and into the ‘scrub’, as part of the new Northern Territory government’s approach to tackling alcoholism”.
The Minister for Alcohol Policy, Dave Tollner explained that “the problem we have in NT is that we have these people in such obvious locations.
“Businesses, the tourism industry are just screaming blue murder that this is going on in our faces every day. The first thing we want to do is to clear the drunks off the streets.”
Those who failed to attend mandatory rehabilitation would be sent to prison farms.
The hope was that “problem drunks will get the message that they can’t drink in public spaces — the public has just had enough”.
Richard Chenhall, a lecturer in medical anthropology, was quoted as arguing that “the approach is more about getting problem drunks – read: Aboriginal people drinking in public spaces – off the streets… The policy is effectively criminalising drunkenness, which is barking back to a previous era”.
We can put this in some political context.
In the middle of September, the coronial inquest report into the death of Kwemnetyaye Briscoe was released.
Its conclusions, at a glance, appeared rather scathing. Coroner Greg Cavanagh found that:
“the care, supervision and treatment of the deceased while being held in custody by the NT Police was completely inadequate and unsatisfactory and not sufficient to meet his medical needs.
“This lack of care resulted in his death, that is to say, this death was preventable and it should not have occurred… these were not the isolated failures of one or two rogue policemen in an otherwise well managed environment.
“In my view the catalogue of errors is so extensive, and involved so many police officers of various ranks, as to suggest mismanagement for a period of time by Police Command at a level higher than just “local”.
However, a closer look at the report revealed its extraordinary deference to the police.
Virtually every judgment call by the police is supported or justified by Cavanagh, and he routinely accepted police justifications for police assaults on Kwementyaye Briscoe, which did not cause his death, but did cause facial bleeding.
Cavanagh noted that lawyers for the police submitted that “this is not a case where officers should be viewed as brutal or uncaring or inhumane, but rather ‘[t]his was a situation in which decent people made errors’. I unreservedly accept that submission.”
Let us pause to note just a few facts about what happened.
When Briscoe was carried to his cell and dumped, face down, in a plainly awkward position, other prisoners called to police to take him to the hospital, as his head was “pissing out blood”.
The police do not dispute this happened. They just did not think it worthwhile to give Briscoe any medical attention, until they revisited his cell hours later, when he was already dead. Cavanagh noted that a prisoner said “we told them to give him some medical attention and they didn’t seem like they cared”.
Cavanagh himself noted that “in a watch house full of prisoners and police officers of various rank, only the prisoners spoke out about the need for immediate medical care”.
Yet the police were not, in Cavanagh’s view, uncaring.
At the same time, Sergeant William McDonnell was performing the role of Watch House Commander, and noticed there was more blood on the floor.
As noted by Cavanagh, “his subsequent comment of “Ohhh, I did a biohazard clean just before. What’d he do, fall over again?” was made with an insouciant sigh.
“It is deeply disappointing that he did not inquire further about the welfare of the prisoner who blood was spilt”.
It is worth reflecting on a police sergeant who was more concerned about having to clean up blood on the floor, than checking on the person from whose head the blood came.
Yet Cavanagh did not think this qualified as uncaring.
Within an hour the shift changed. One police officer, warned that Briscoe was “blind” drunk, informed the two probationary constables, David O’Keefe and Janice Kershaw, to keep Briscoe under “close obs”.
This meant checking on Briscoe every 15 minutes. This conversation occurred a little after 11pm. The probationary constables, notes Cavanagh, only conducted three cell checks on Briscoe. These occurred at 10:47, 11:01, and 11:30.
So it appears that after being ordered to regularly check on Briscoe, they did so once.
As Cavanagh notes, they “rarely left their desks” over the next two hours. They admitted being distracted by “various things, including an iphone, an ipod, and the internet”.
They did not even bother to respond to the “distress calls made by prisoners in Cell 16, who could see and hear that Kwementyaye was in trouble” – indeed, “likely” the “last moments he was alive and at the last opportunity police had to save his life”.
At the time, 11:44pm Officer O’Keefe was “listening to the ‘banter’ between” officers.
O’Keefe answered the call a few minutes later, but because the prisoners in cell 16 seemed to just be sitting around by this time, he didn’t bother to continue the call and just hung up. It was not until 1:30 that Senior Sergeant Barram returned, and at 1:41 that he performed a cell check and discovered Briscoe’s body.
Given these undisputed facts, one shudders to think what kind of performance would be required for Mr Cavanagh to describe police officers as being “uncaring”.
Yet whilst Cavanagh did not support prosecution – individual accountability – against any individual police officers, he did support the original arrest of Briscoe.
Constable First Class Gareth Evans saw a group of Aboriginal people sitting around.
When they saw him, they started to run. Evans requested backup, and proceeded to chase and catch as many Aboriginal people as he
could. This was for ‘protective custody’.
None of the Aboriginal people had committed a crime, but Evans explained he was concerned that Briscoe seemed aggressive. After he had been chased down – no explanation was required for the decision to chase in the first place. And so, Briscoe was taken into protective custody, to protect the public from him.
That sounds plausible, right? A police officer sees a group of Aboriginal people, and seeks to question them about an unrelated matter.
The group sees the cop, and starts running, for no apparent reason. The cop calls for more police to arrest as many of them as they can – and when he successfully arrests one of them, its because the Aboriginal person seems mysteriously aggressive.
Evans claims that Briscoe “slipped” and fell, causing a laceration above his eye that kept reopening through the night. Evans also admits assaulting Briscoe, pushing him over, then holding him down on the ground. All this is accepted as perfectly reasonable by Cavanagh.
Cavanagh then discusses police work more generally in his report. He notes that the Alice Springs Watch House was very busy, mostly because of “excess consumption of alcohol”.
Prisoner intake for protective custody takes up the “vast bulk of the numbers”.
From July 1 2011 to March 31 2012, there were 8588 alcohol related incidents in Alice Springs with police intervention.
These are “staggering numbers”, for the Alice Springs Watch House.
Cavanagh “heard from officers that the main role for police performing general duties is to detain inebriated Aboriginal people in protective custody and to respond to domestic violence, usually fuelled by alcohol”.
And the Assistant Commissioner agreed that “the vast majority of police work involves dealing with persons seriously affected by alcohol through excessive and very extensive liquor consumption.
“For the most part those seriously affected are Indigenous.”
Cavanagh concluded by urging that the issue of alcoholism be addressed – but without expressing concern about the institutionalised racism revealed by these numbers.
It seems the NT government listened.
With this background, it is worth revisiting is the National Report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.
Some of its passages read as though they were written directly in response to the NT government’s latest announcements. For example, Elliott Johnston wrote
“There is clear evidence that in some places the laws which police officers have been directed to enforce have been based on unfair and racist assumptions that Aboriginal people, by their very presence in a community, offended non-Aboriginal codes of conduct.
“One example of this is local campaigns against public drinking.
“In some instances, the main objective of such campaigns has been the removal of Aboriginal people from the public view.
“The behaviour which is sought to be addressed is not so much unlawful but simply different to the proprieties observed, at least in public, by many non-Aboriginal people.
“In my opinion such laws, and the assumptions which underlie them, have no place in Australian society.”
This sounds like it could have been written today. It is a sad commentary on Australia that in fact, it dates from over 20 years ago.