Police pursuit scrutinised by coronial inquest into death in custody

July 4, 2021
Raymond Noel Lindsay Thomas' family outside the Coroners Court on July 2. Photo: Still from a video posted on Dhadjowa Foundation / Facebook

An eight-day coronial inquest into the fatal police chase of 29-year-old Gunnai, Gunditjmara and Wiradjuri man Raymond Noel Lindsay Thomas in 2017 ended on July 2.

Raymond Noel died during a police chase on June 25, 2017. His family described him as a “gentle giant”. They have waited a long time to learn the truth about how he died and to have their views on Victoria Police's practices and procedures heard in court.

The Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service (VALS), that is supporting the Thomas family in its quest for justice, said on June 20: “It is unacceptable that governments have failed to implement the recommendations [of the Royal Commission into Black Deaths in Custody] and end preventable deaths in custody and in [a] police presence.”

The court heard that Raymond Noel had gone to buy chocolates from a nearby supermarket when highway patrol officers saw his car and thought it looked “dodgy”. The car was unregistered, a minor traffic offence, but the police opted for a high-speed pursuit of up to 130 kilometres an hour, the court heard.

Just 21 seconds after the police chase began, Raymond Noel lost control of the car and died.

On the final day of the court hearing, Raymond Noel’s family conducted a smoking ceremony. “Raymond Noel was a beautiful man and an unregistered vehicle should never be a death sentence”, said Apryl Day, the daughter of Yorta Yorta woman Tanya Day, who was killed in custody in 2017. Day is the founder of the Dhajdhowa Foundation, that supports families of those who have died in police custody.

Raymond Noel’s parents, Aunty Debbie and Uncle Ray said: “Every day since Raymond Noel died has been very difficult for us. We have wanted our day in court for so long, but we know that it will be a painful time and we hope that we finally get some answers.

“As Aboriginal people, we live with the fear of how racism will affect us every day”, they said. “Being harassed or mistreated by police is one of our greatest fears and our hearts are broken because that fear became reality for our son.”

VALS said previous coronial inquests and investigations had criticised Victoria Police for its car chases.  It said it hopes the inquest into Raymond Noel’s tragic death will provide a fresh opportunity to examine the police’s pursuit procedures.

VALS also condemned the practice of allowing police to investigate their own conduct arguing that independent bodies should be given the job.

The court heard that the police involved in the pursuit did not consider the safety risk involved and they should have terminated it as soon as Raymond Noel accelerated away.

Victoria Police, including the riot squad, turned out in force to the Coroners Court on June 30. Staff told the police to leave, Sally Rugg reported on Twitter. Coroner John Olle expressed his anger about the police presence during the hearing saying: “For this entire inquest, the family have been nothing but dignified. There is no need for extra security in my court. They should not be here.”

Aunty Debbie and Uncle Ray said: “We hope that the Coroner can recommend changes to Victoria Police and the Victorian Government that will ensure no one else has to experience the grief that our family is still processing.”

It is not known exactly when the coroner’s findings will be handed down.

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