Learning the truth of Indigenous abuse key to fixing justice system

It was on a hot August night at the Shire Hall in Normanton. The local dance had just wound up and people were walking home. Normanton is an outback town in the Gulf of Carpentaria, with a predominantly Indigenous population. Three police officers were on duty, with not much to do. One, a sergeant, was in charge of the fairly quiet Normanton police station while the other two, both detectives, were on patrol after being sent to Normanton because of the influx of people attending the local race meeting.

I was a lawyer for an Aboriginal legal service in North Queensland at the time. My client was about to leave the Shire Hall to go home with his partner. The officers were obviously bored on patrol, decided to have a bit of fun and arrested my client, allegedly for using obscene language. They forcibly removed him from the hall, and took him to the watchhouse. What happened next was appalling, but tragically, not uncommon. The Court record speaks for itself:

The police officers were bored and decided to have a bit of fun with my client.Credit:Harry Afentoglou

“The plaintiff (my client) was pushed into the watchhouse by the arresting officers where he was punched by both of them and knocked down. While the plaintiff was on the floor the two officers kicked him around the head and shoulders. The plaintiff covered his head and called out that he’d had enough.

During this assault, the plaintiff managed to get to his feet and make a break for the door of the watchhouse, but he was pushed back by the officer-in-charge, who had been standing at the doorway while the others were punching and kicking the man. The officer pushed him down and back against the wire mesh in the communal area in front of the watchhouse.

While the plaintiff was on the floor and against the mesh, one of the arresting officers took hold of the mesh to steady himself and jumped up and down on the head and shoulder area of the plaintiff. After he stopped jumping on the plaintiff, he walked away. Not long after he had gone, the other arresting officer went up to the plaintiff, stood over him and urinated on his stomach.”

These were findings of fact upheld by Full Court of the Supreme Court in Queensland after my client sued the police for assault.

Whilst these horrific events happened in Normanton back in 1982, we have to ask ourselves whether much has really changed since then?

Many Indigenous Australians have not survived the outrageous and degrading treatment meted out on my client in that Normanton watchhouse, and far too many have died in custody.

It seems unthinkable that, since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody handed down its recommendations just on 30 years ago, there have been more than 470 further Aboriginal deaths in custody. It seems unthinkable that Indigenous children are 17 times more likely to be jailed than their non-indigenous counterparts.

It seems unthinkable that Indigenous Australians make up just three per cent of our population, but 30 per cent of our prison population. It also seems unthinkable that these tragic statistics mean that Indigenous Australians, per head of population, are the most jailed people in the world.

So really, very little has changed since my client was brutalised and demeaned by those police officers all those years ago.

Thirty years after the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody there have been more than 470 further Indigenous deaths in jails and holding cells.Credit:Getty Images

But as unthinkable as these statistics are, we must acknowledge them, continue to make them visible, and be united with our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander brothers and sisters in bringing about meaningful and lasting change.

Just as the Yoo-rrook Truth and Justice Commission commences its work in Victoria in parallel with the Treaty process, we should grasp this opportunity to address the wrongs and re-define the relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Victorians.

We must all work together with innovation and passion to change the policies, systems and structures that allow so many Indigenous Australians to be incarcerated.

We must immediately re-commit as a community to do all that we can to stop the culture of paternalistic racism that led to the cruel and inhumane treatment of my client in Normanton and continues today. We must listen to those with lived experience as they tell their stories to the Truth Commission and we must acknowledge the inadequacies of our justice system in order to put a halt to the ongoing deaths of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in our police cells and prisons.

Rob Hulls is the director of the Centre for Innovative Justice at RMIT University.

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