Tanya Louise Day was a strong Yorta Yorta woman who stood up for Aboriginal families whose loved ones had died in prison or police custody. She died from head injuries sustained in Castlemaine police station, in regional Victoria, on December 22, 2017.
Tanya Day had been locked up for sleeping on a train after a few drinks. A V/Line officer asked the driver to call the police to remove her from the train. Police were told to come and pick up an unruly Aboriginal woman, despite other passengers saying she had caused no trouble.
For two years, her four children fought for a coronial inquest. A six-week hearing into her death concluded on September 13, but it may take up to 12 months for the Coroner’s findings to be released.
Their early submissions to the Coroner resulted in the first-ever Australian inquest to take evidence on whether systemic racism contributed to a death. The family also challenged the use of police investigators by the Coroners Court, exposing extremely inadequate evidence-gathering by the court’s police investigators and Victoria Police’s internal Professional Standards Unit.
At the close of the inquest, the siblings issued a statement calling for an end to “police investigating police” and for charges to be laid against police for their criminally negligent treatment of their mother.
They also reminded the Victorian government that they intend to hold them to their verbal promise, extracted by the family prior to the hearing, to abolish the offence of public drunkenness.
In 2017, Tanya Day’s children were told by hospital staff that their dying mother likely had a pre-existing condition that had caused a brain bleed.
But CCTV footage from the holding cell at Castlemaine police station tells a very different story. It shows Tanya Day falling five times and hitting her head on the wall and concrete bench in the four hours she was there between 4-8pm. Medical experts told the inquest a sickening fall at 4.51pm caused the traumatic brain injury that killed her.
When police finally entered Tanya Day’s cell, four hours after they had locked her up, they realised she was in serious trouble and called an ambulance. But they did not tell paramedics about the falls or the fresh bruise on her head.
Paramedics noticed her pupils were narrowed and assumed she had taken illicit drugs, which she had not.
Ambulance Victoria has since apologised to the family for their disrespectful treatment. The family has accepted their apology.
Tanya’s daughter Belinda Day told ABC Radio National, “It all goes back to the police.” If the police had told the paramedics about the head injuries, her treatment would have been different.
Victoria Police and V/Line, however, have made no apology. Both deny that Tanya Day’s race was a factor in their decision to take her off the train and lock her up.
Sleeping on public transport, drunk or not, is commonplace. If Tanya Day had been white, she would have completed her train journey and still be alive.
Public drunkenness and other “vagrancy” offences — swearing, loitering, disorderly behaviour — are frequently used by police to control Aboriginal people and communities. The same behaviour in white people is seen as either unremarkable or even mildly amusing, as is the case with the paralytic punters who sprawl all over Melbourne trams and trains each Spring Racing Carnival.
When Tanya Day was 19, her uncle, Harrison Day, died in Echuca hospital, in northern Victoria, on June 23, 1982, from an epileptic fit that started in Echuca police lockup. He had been arrested for failure to pay a $10 fine for being “drunk and disorderly”.
His was one of the 99 deaths investigated by the 1987 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. In Harrison Day’s case, the Commission found that the law against public drunkenness, “as administered by police and courts in Echuca at the time, served to harass drunks, particularly Aboriginals, to no useful purpose and at considerable public expense.”
The Commission added: “Had Harrison Day been visited 'frequently', as Police Standing Orders required but practice negated, his fitting may have been discovered earlier and his death may have been avoided…
“There was no proper investigation of the death and in particular no consideration by anyone of whether police had carried out their duties to visit and care for the prisoner … The police investigation, autopsy and coronial inquest were inadequate.
“The police officer whose conduct should have been the prime subject of investigation was the sole investigator, the sole supplier of information to the pathologist who conducted the autopsy, the sole compiler of the coroner's brief, the sole counsel appearing before the coroner, and the principal witness at the inquest…
“There was no review of the events by the Police Department or the coroner to see whether anything could be learnt to improve future practice.”
The commission recommended the abolition of public drunkenness offences and the redrawing of Police Standing Orders to “ensure that proper standards of care of prisoners are established”.
After her uncle’s death Tanya Day became an active and committed campaigner against systemic racism, violence and injustice.
Belinda Day told ABC RN that if her mother was here now, “she’d be the first one up there [in the hearing] doing the talking and the fighting.”
“We are fortunate to have been raised by such a strong Aboriginal woman. We are carrying on her spirit and making sure she is remembered as a person.”