Kumanjayi Langdon, 59, from Yuendumu in Central Australia, died of heart failure in Darwin Police Watch House on May 21 — “on a concrete bench with two strangers” — three hours after being taken into custody following a paperless arrest “for drinking in a regulated place”.
At the inquest into Langdon’s death, Northern Territory Coroner Greg Cavenagh found he died from natural causes but should have been able to die in freedom, with his family and friends.
"In my view Kumanjayi Langdon had the right to die as a free man," Cavanagh said.
He found that the paperless arrests — by which people can be arrested without a warrant and detained for four hours if police suspect they have committed or may be about to commit an offence — disproportionately affect Aboriginal people and will lead to more Aboriginal deaths in custody if they are not repealed.
Langdon was arrested, even though he was not causing trouble and was at all times quiet and cooperative with police. He was, however, very drunk: toxicology showed his blood alcohol to be .270% — “high but not fatal”.
Rise in police workload
Police witnesses told the inquest police workload had significantly increased since the introduction of paperless arrest in November last year. Sergeant Paul Jones said: “In the afternoon shift I processed between 20 and 30 people. I didn’t have time to sign the Kumanjayi health assessment or mark him as a risk on the form”.
Under state laws it is mandatory for police to mark people in custody who have health problems on an "at risk form" to ensure they receive medical assistance.
Jones said: “The majority of the arrested people under the paperless scheme were Aboriginal people who had been drinking.” The coroner asked: “Except for the odd Irish backpacker, all of them are Aboriginal drinkers?” Jones replied: “Yes”.
Jones also said that he often relied on the custody nurse to raise health concerns about prisoners. But in this case the registered nurse, Fiona McColl, used a cut and paste template and recorded that Langdon had “denied health problems” before being placed into custody despite his request to see a doctor.
McColl admitted she was aware of Langdon’s heart condition “but it was a busy shift and I was finishing it”. McColl said there were no signs of illness on visual check, his blood oxygen was normal and he was in no pain. The CCTV records showed that Langdon asked for a doctor, but he was ignored.
Aboriginal people targeted
The coroner found that the paperless arrest laws were "manifestly unfair" because they disproportionately targeted Aboriginal people. These laws were "irreconcilable" with the 1991 Royal Commission’s findings that arrest should be used as a last resort to prevent deaths in custody. The coroner told the court that a civilised society doesn’t arrest people unless there are no other options.
He said: “This law, in my view perpetuates and entrenches Indigenous disadvantage. It is no coincidence that the first man to die under the laws is an Aboriginal man.”
The coroner said it is unfair that Aboriginal people who were quietly drinking and not causing a disturbance in the public parks of Darwin's CBD were being targeted for arrest under a policy direction from the government's paperless arrest law.
He said this clashed with the situation of non-Aboriginal people being allowed to drink to excess beside them in the alfresco drinking establishments of the CBD — which Aboriginal people from the homeless or long grass community would not be allowed to enter because of their state of dress.
The coroner said there were some shortcomings in Langdon's care in the watch house, but these had not contributed to his death.
But he found that Langon, “a sick, middle-aged Aboriginal man, was treated like a criminal, incarcerated like a criminal and died in a police cell built for criminals. In my opinion, it matters not that it was only for a few hours that he was deprived of his liberty.”
He said there is a clear link between the paperless arrest laws and a rise in incarceration of Aboriginal people, which perpetuates and entrenches their disadvantage.
He said the scheme was introduced “without any apparent thought to the impact on watch house numbers, or the likely increase in deaths in custody”.
He recommended the repeal of the paperless arrest law "to prevent the risk of an increase in deaths in custody like Kumanjayi Langdon's".
“Ordinarily, it is not appropriate for a judicial officer to criticise laws passed by a democratically elected government, however I am compelled to do so, pursuant to my powers under s.26(2) of the Coroner’s Act.
End paperless arrests
“In my view, unless the paperless arrest laws are struck from the statute books, more and more disadvantaged Aboriginal people are at risk of dying in custody and unnecessarily so.”
He also recommended that the government commission an independent expert inquiry into responses to alcohol misuse. This should form the basis for a plan to be developed by the government working with stakeholders, including Aboriginal people, communities and organisations, to find solutions.
Reacting to the findings, Langdon's cultural brother and the family's spokesperson at the inquest, Rex Granites, said as a former drinker himself who no longer consumed liquor, he wanted the government to involve Aboriginal people in finding better solutions to alcohol problems.
"At the moment on these communities everybody wants to drink," Granites said.
"The government has all their meetings [about this] in closed doors. Not where everybody can be speaking out on these issues and can be listened to.”
Granites’ lawyer at the inquest, Jonathon Hunyor, from the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA), welcomed the coroner's findings on the paperless arrest law and the need for an alcohol inquiry.
"We think that second step is critical," Hunyor said. "Punitive, policing approaches to a serious social problem like the Territory's drinking problem, just aren't the way to go.
"There is no evidence to support that they work, and they need approaches based on evidence and working with Aboriginal people to find solutions."
Government defends paperless arrest laws
The NT government is not known for its sympathy with Aboriginal issues. So it was no surprise that Attorney-General John Elferink said it will not scrap its paperless arrest laws.
Elferink defended the laws, saying the laws have not changed the experience for offenders, only reduced paperwork for the police.
"When a person is brought into custody and they are held in a cell if they are charged with an offence then they are still subject to a determination of bail, whether bail should be granted, when that bail should be granted, or whether that bail should be refused," Elferink said.
Elferink also played down the possibility of an inquiry on alcohol misuse. He has three months to either implement the coroner's recommendations or provide a report explaining why the government will not act on them.
The coroner was very clear in condemning the paperless arrest laws, the circumstances of the arrest, the effects of the law on Aboriginal people, the need for new policies about alcohol misuse and his conclusion that Langdon was entitled to die as a free man.
What is questionable is his conclusion that no one was responsible for Langdon’s death in custody. He almost agreed with the police lawyer who said that due to his health, Langdon would probably be dead now anyway.
However, many questions remain unanswered. Why was Langdon arrested? Why did no one notice his poor health? Why did no one do anything to care for Langdon's welfare? Why wasn’t a doctor called? And why did Langdon die in custody?
The real reason for Langdon's death in custody has to be found in the attitude existing in the NT and throughout Australia as a whole towards Aboriginal people. There is a line that joins land dispossession, deaths in custody, the forced removal of Aboriginal kids, the intervention, the destruction of communities, the high level of Aboriginal incarceration and suicide. That line says GENOCIDE.
[Name and photos are used with permission of Kumanjayi Langdon’s cultural brother Rex Granites.]