ON OUR WATCH: The death in custody of Mr Phillips


NATIONAL: Two years ago, Tracker reported on the death in custody of Mr Phillips, who passed away in a prison cell in Kalgoorlie. JAN MAYMAN reports on the troubling findings of his inquest, held only last year.

Like too many other Indigenous Australians, Mr Phillips died a miserable, painful death in a police lockup cell.

Disabled and sick, he was picked up in January 2011 after failing to obey a police ‘Move on’ order. Less than 24 hours later he was dead. He was 51 years old.

It took the West Australian justice system almost 12 months to hold a coronial inquest into the death of Mr Phillips. The official finding was “death by natural causes”.

But the inquiry revealed that this Elder was suffering from pneumonia when he died, as well as other serious health problems. He was barely able to walk, after partial foot amputations, and suffered from heart and kidney disease. He used alcohol to dull the pain of his poverty stricken life in the fabulously wealthy gold mining city of Kalgoorlie.

“I’m a sick man, ‘ he protested to police before he was locked away without any medical checks, as the inquest revealed.

“He was of extremely poor health. He should have been assessed medically straight away and either placed in hospital or in a sobering-up shelter,” said Mark Newhouse, spokesman for WA’s Deaths in Custody Watch Committee.

After Mr Phillips died, he had plenty of medical attention. The Coroner carefully reported the help he received from his jailers as he lay dying:

“…At approximately 3:30am Mr Phillips was heard to collapse in Cell 1 and a police officer summonsed help via the telephone as another detainee called for assistance. Mr Phillips was initially breathing but became pulseless…”

Police began a resuscitation attempt while awaiting the ambulance but its crew pronounced him dead:

“…St John Ambulance officers arrived at approximately 3:45am and instructed police to continue administering CPR while they assessed Mr Phillips.

“…St John ambulance officers determined Mr Phillips was no longer alive at 3:50am hours and advised the police nothing further could be done to revive him…”

His health problems included high blood pressure, pancreatitis, gangrenous limbs, amputations of toes and fingers, anaemia, renal failure (previously requiring dialysis), intestinal parasites and liver enlargement. Alcohol was blamed as a major cause of his death.

He was well known to police and along with his health carers, they considered his chronic health issues a result of his continued alcohol abuse, said the WA’s Deputy State Coroner, Evelyn Felicia Vickers in her official finding.

“…Aside from the medical concern with the effect of alcohol on Mr Phillips’ wellbeing, the police also had the added concern of Mr Phillips’ affect on members of the public with whom he came into contact when in an intoxicated and “untidy” state. That was a community concern…”

The beginning of the end came for Mr Phillips the day the frail man was seen urinating in the street near a popular Woolworths store.

Earlier in the day, he was handed a police “move on order”, after being caught drinking with a friend in a fast food driveway. The order banned him from going within 100 metres of the area before 8 pm that evening. A police witness told the Inquest that he had given Mr Phillips “move on” orders before, and was satisfied that he knew what they meant (The infamous WA move on orders carry a penalty of 12 months jail or a $12,000 fine for breaches).

Mr Phillips was too slow to move on. At approximately 12:55pm, an off duty policeman in an unmarked car drove past the scene and later gave evidence that he had a clear view of him urinating. He immediately called the police station and reported what he had seen. He had known Mr Phillips for six months, and recognised him by a bandage on his hand, he would testify later.

After calling for police reinforcements, the off duty policeman followed Mr Phillips into a Woolworths store where he saw Mr Phillips in furious argument with a manager.

The manager, Kristian Ruthven gave evidence that he had contact with Mr Phillips twice in the week before, and as a result he had told the Aboriginal man that he was not welcome in Woolworths because of his behaviour. At approximately 1:10pm staff told him Mr Phillips was in the store. He was arguing with an assistant who had taken a bag of meat away from him.

The Coroner was impressed by the store manager’s evidence, and quoted key sections in her finding:

“… it is clear Mr Ruthven was concerned about the behaviour of Mr Phillips who was screaming and shouting abuse. Mr Phillips attempted to push past Mr Ruthven when Mr Ruthven prevented him from re-entering the store and Mr Phillips told Mr Ruthven, as he spat at him, that he had HIV. Mr Ruthven does not know where the spit landed, but certainly saw it aimed in his direction.”

“Mr Ruthven ordered the doors to be locked. This prevented customers from leaving the Woolworths store but also protected them from Mr Phillips’ actions.

“Mr Ruthven opened the doors to allow a female customer into the store who was unaware of the altercation. Mr Phillips attempted to spit at him again. Once the doors had re-closed Mr Phillips banged on the doors with his bandage…”

Arrested for breach of his move on order as well as disorderly conduct and assault, Mr Phillips was taken to the Kalgoorlie Police station to be locked up overnight pending a court appearance. He lost his temper after a series of police questions about his health status.

The coroner commented:

“When watching the CCTV footage Mr Phillips’ response is quite startling in view of his prior relatively compliant demeanor.

“He erupts from the bench where he has been sitting and approaches the front of the lock-up counter quite aggressively. He is yelling about being ‘as sick man’ and on a disability’ and is extremely volatile in his demeanor.’

“I accept he does not attempt to physically assault any of the police officers, his abusiveness is more in his demeanor.

“Mr Phillips does not say he refuses to answer any of the questions but he effectively makes it impossible, with his actions and speech, to enable any coherent conversation to take place…”

Mr Phillips was placed in a police lockup cell without a medical examination.

He did not finish his dinner, and went to sleep, according to police at the lockup.

Around 3.30 am, a duty officer heard a thump from his cell, followed by a groan.

The prisoner was seen lying on his cell floor convulsing in a fit. Then the police resuscitation attempt began, and an ambulance was called. It was all too late.

A post mortem exam found that Mr Phillips’ death was due to a seizure, the kind that could affect people recovering from alcohol intoxication. This was consistent with his medical history, the Coroner found.

She said the post mortem exam had revealed early pneumonia in Mr Phillips’ airways, which would have affected his ability to breathe properly.

Together with a seizure, this could lead to hypoxia, or lack of oxygen as well as cardiac arrest: a heart attack
His fatal collapse “…could not have been predicted with any reliability by police…” the Coroner said.

“…There would have been no symptom or sign upon which the police could realistically present with Mr Phillips to an emergency department or doctor with the information they had, or indeed was available to them…

“On this occasion, and I am sure there are others, the lock-up keeper was unable to obtain specific information he could use with respect to Mr Phillips’ health and welfare, due to Mr Phillips’ conduct.

“A number of issues arise from that event, not the least of which is intoxication and un-wellness often make people appear aggressive. It can be an indication, of itself, all is not well…

If a prisoner refused to provide information it should be noted as a refusal:

“… It needs to be a real refusal or inability to comply, not a default entry in the custody system…”
Though police were cleared of any blame for the death, the Coroner did recommend some changes in prisoner treatment at WA police lockups:

“… There should be a be follow-up when circumstances have changed, or the detainee has settled, to consider ‘ specific current concerns, especially where a detainee has made a vague reference to being a ‘sick man’…”

“There should also be a clear indication at shift handover of any detainee’s high risk status.

“Any lack of information should be followed-up with detainees if no welfare information has been provided for their admission.

“In addition, I suggest there be negotiation between senior police and health providers in regions such as Kalgoorlie which would allow for communication between those parties as to health and welfare concerns for detainees.

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One Comment

  1. Margaret
    Posted August 27, 2013 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

    If Mr Phillip was a white man, the type of treatment that he got from police would not have been given, Mr Phillip was clearly judged by his look, his colour, his smell of alcohol and his hygiene. He was clearly very hungry but due to his look the store manager did not want him in there. Clearly Mr Phillip did not know how to effectively communicate with anyone especially the Police and this has probably been the way that many people have treated him and noone showed him any compassion prior to his arrest, prior to his heart attack, but when he died everyone tried to cover their tracks, same old same old story. All too often the Police are protected and the system rallies around those Officers that refuse to look further than the colour of skin, poverty and bad hygiene. When are people going to realise that you should not judge a book by its cover that there is a real history and story underneath and it is not a good one. Mr Phillip has most likely suffered most of his life with discrimination, inequality of services that should have been given, or provided to him and that would explain why he drank so much to dull the pain of not only his illness but his rejection from the wider society in Kalgoorlie and even beyond. The answer is not to lock up someone like him up, but to get him some proper help, not another bandaid solution either, which is all too often the case for people like Mr Phillip (RIP). My condolences go out to his family and friends and my hope is that the Police Department in Places like Kalgoorlie which is an extremely racist environment to live in, does a complete overhaul of its services and looks at really getting their Police Officers to engage in cultural security and safety practices for Aboriginal people of the Goldfields. And it is not just the Police who need to do this, but almost all of the non-aboriginal service providers in Kalgoorlie need to be trained in Cultural Security and Safety Practices for Aboriginal people.

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