On September 17, NT Coroner Greg Cavanagh handed down his damning findings regarding the death in custody of Kwementyaye Briscoe in the Alice Springs watch house in January.
Briscoe, a young Aboriginal man, had committed no crime, but was taken into so-called protective custody for being excessively drunk. He was found dead in his cell before the night was through.
He was found to have consumed most of a bottle of rum in the police van, which he obtained from another prisoner. He was dragged through the watch house and shoved down against a bench, where he hit his head and arm.
During the inquest, other prisoners reported having seen Briscoe bleeding from the head and gasping for air. He was left unattended for two hours, despite prisoners asking police to check on him.
Cavanagh found the police on duty that night were “utterly derelict” in their failure to keep Briscoe under observation. He found they were distracted “by various things including an iPhone, iPad and the internet”, said AAP on September 17.
But Cavanagh’s criticism reached beyond those directly involved on the night. He said: “In my view the catalogue of errors is so extensive and involves so many police officers of various rank as to suggest mismanagement for a period of time by police command at a level higher than just local."
However, justice campaigners fear nothing will change in relation to police treatment of Aboriginal prisoners. AAP said up to 10 officers had been disciplined but confirmed none had been sacked.
NT Aboriginal leader Barb Shaw has called for constable Gareth Evans to be sacked. Evans was recorded dragging Briscoe through the watch house.
Cavanagh recommended police avoid dragging prisoners, suggesting wheelchairs or stretchers be used when people are unable to walk. He also said nurses must be made available in watch houses.
Despite the ruling, the NT Police Association tried to defend the police’s actions. Association president Vince Kelly said on September 18: “To a certain degree, some of the stuff you see on that footage it is not police being bad or evil.”
New NT Chief Minister Terry Mills has rejected calls to sack NT Police Commissioner John McRoberts, but vowed to implement the recommendations and promised a “genuine change of culture within the police force”. But justice campaigners have said the recommendations are inadequate.
Hilary Tyler, a friend of Briscoe’s family, said on September 18: “The recommendations are a farce, and do not address the systemic issues. The NT Police needs to take ownership of this, and Constable Evans should lose his job.”