Aboriginal teenager dead: Jai Wright’s family calls for independent investigation

Image: Celeste Wright/Facebook

The family of a 16-year-old Aboriginal boy who was killed in a collision with an unmarked police car has called for an independent investigation into his death.

Thungutti teenager Jai Wright was riding a motorbike in Alexandria on February 19 when an unmarked police car hit him. He died the next day in hospital from head injuries.

How exactly the deadly crash happened remains unclear as New South Wales Police has given the family two contradictory stories.

In the first version, a senior police officer told the family that officers pursued the teenager on the motorbike, and then stopped the chase. Later, an unmarked police car pulled out in front of Jai and he collided with the car.

The second version given to the family was that there was “no pursuit”: Jai apparently hit a bump and lost control, crashing the motorbike into a parked police car.

The first version would mean the incident would have to be investigated as a death in custody. The second version could rule out a coronial inquest.

Lachlan Wright, Jai’s father, said the different accounts from police about what happened showed “disrespect” to the family.

“We have been given inconsistent information by police as to what caused Jai’s death,” he said on February 21. “Any parent wants to know how their little boy has died. That is why we are calling for an entirely independent inquiry away from the police.”

Jai was described by his family as a “proud Aboriginal boy” who “everyone wanted to be around”. He was about to start an apprenticeship to become an electrician.

Jai died less than a week after the family of TJ Hickey led a memorial march to Redfern Police Station to mark 18 years since TJ was killed in Waterloo as part of a police chase. No police officer has been charged and TJ’s family is also calling for an independent investigation after a rushed coronial inquest cleared police of any wrongdoing despite omissions of evidence.

There are also parallels with the 2016 death of 14-year-old Elijah Doughty in Kalgoorlie, Western Australia, who was hit by a vehicle because the driver suspected him of stealing a motorbike. Elijah was flung from the bike and the vehicle continued driving over him, killing him instantly. The driver was found not guilty of manslaughter.

Redfern Legal Centre (RLC) released a statement on February 21 demanding NSW Police make its policy on Safe Driving public. RLC said the document was “shrouded in secrecy”. Samantha Lee, RLC police accountability officer, said police pursuit protocols and its Safe Driving policy remain “hidden from public scrutiny” despite a spike in deaths following police pursuits.

“Police motor vehicle incidents often occur in the context of police pursuits, and continue to have horrific consequences, impacting many including young people, innocent bystanders, ambulance services, witnesses, and even police themselves,” she said.

“NSW State Coroners have made numerous recommendations about safe driving … but we still don’t know if NSW Police have acted on these recommendations,” she said.

RLC outlined the NSW Coroners Court’s 10 recommendations made between 2016 and 2021, and said they must be immediately implemented.

The Coroner recommended in 2016 that “The NSW Police Force Safe Driving Policy component dealing with police pursuits be reviewed, in the light of Australian and international experience and research” and that there be “an unequivocal definition of the term ‘termination’ as it relates to pursuits”.

Since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody brought down its 339 recommendations to save lives in 1991, more than 500 people have died in custody.

The Aboriginal Legal Service (ALS) has echoed the Wright family’s call for an independent inquiry. “To be an independent investigation, you can’t be a police officer. You can’t be a police officer investigating other police officers,” Wright said. “That’s my kid. I am never going to see him again. I just want to know the truth.”

The Wright family thanked the community for their support on February 23 and said that they would be organising a march “in the days and weeks after Jai’s funeral”. In comments posted on the ALS FB page, they said they “look forward to a coronial inquest and the opportunity to find the truth about Jai’s death”.