In 1994, after the death of an Aboriginal man in the East Perth lockup in Perth, the police union secretary of the time said, “It is totally unreasonable for police who catch the crooks to then be accountable for their welfare.” This was a shocking admission of a police culture which cultivated a callous disregard for duty of care towards First Nations people.

The history of First Nations people and WA police force is a dark one. It is the history of forced removals of children by police, of displacement of families, of land being taken by force, of racism, unjust trials, incarceration and deaths in custody.  

The WA Police Commissioner Chris Dawson did what no other Police Commissioner has done– he named that history, he acknowledged the devastating and ongoing impact of it, and took ownership for being part of the problem.

He apologised and set out an intention to re-establish the relationship between First Nations people and the police force of WA.

Critically, Commissioner Chris Dawson asked every one of his officers to reflect on every time they have had an interaction with a First Nations person, to take stock of their own attitudes and behaviours – and ask whether they had treated that person differently to how they would treat any non – First Nations person.

I am in no way naive about the fact that police culture is a difficult culture to change. Nearly three decades ago I was a Royal Commissioner into the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in custody. I know that for many people, the apology and statement of intention to embark upon a new relationship has come too late. But on face value, the admissions and their honesty is a good basis to begin a better and rewarding relationship for all parts.

It came too late for Mr Ward, who died locked in the back of a non-air-conditioned security van in extreme temperatures in the desert lands of the state.

It came too late for John Peter Pat – whose death sparked the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, nearly three decades ago now.

It came too late for Ms Dhu, who died from septicaemia—a preventable death, after begging for medical help and being denied.

It came too late for all their families, for their communities, and the many others who have been denied justice at the hands of police.

But yesterday’s apology was an important step in establishing the intention at the top to rebuild relationships between the WA police and First Nations people based on equality, respect, recognition and honour.

Almost immediately after word got out of the apology, the fear was raised that this apology would lead to a ‘soft on crime’ approach. The Police Commissioner was quick to call that out.

The police are there to uphold the law and they have the great responsibility of working at the coal face on these challenging matters. But they must be held to account, to go about their work in a humane and compassionate manner, upholding the principle of duty of care to the highest standard.

The apology must be matched with action, and build on much of the positive work police are already doing.

There are already examples across the nation where the police are working with community organisations and First Nations people - creating a culture of mutual accountability, safety and trust.  In these locations, there has also been a drop in crime.

The Warakurna Multi-Functional Police Facility, near the Western Australia and Northern Territory Border, is Western Australia’s first police station staffed entirely First Nations people.

In Bourke in NSW, the Maranguka Justice Reinvestment Project is transforming the lives of their young people, spending money on community programs and not prisons.

In the Kimberley, the Yiriman project, supported by the Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Culture Centre provides an avenue for young people to reconnect with country, family and culture – diverting them from offending. Both Commissioner Chris Dawson, and Superintendent for the Kimberley Alan Adams have both put their support behind a juvenile justice facility in the Kimberley, and an alternative to sending our young people over 2500 Kilometres away, to Banksia Hill Detention Centre.

But the justice crisis faced by First Nations people cannot be addressed solely by the police. Our custodial system is littered with laws, such as mandatory sentencing provisions, which are archaic and demonstrably weighed against the interests of First Nations people.

Until there is leadership at the political level across all jurisdictions – we will not see an end to this vicious cycle of injustice.

There are clear pathways to break this cycle. There have been numerous reports, inquires and royal commissions which all made recommendations towards a more just system.

The current Federal Government commissioned the Australian Law Reform Commission to inquire into the incarceration rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples.

In December 2017, they received the Commission’s ‘Pathways to Justice’ Report. The report provided a clear blueprint to reforming our justice system. It made more than 30 recommendations, including on mandatory sentencing, a need for interpreters so First Nations people could have equal access to the justice system  - and an overarching call for community-based sentencing options including the introduction of a justice reinvestment program, overseen by a national body.

It is now July 2018, and the Government has not given a response, other than to say they will consider the recommendations.

While they sit in consideration, the 4 billion dollar industry keeping First Nations people in prison continues to thrive. A First Nations man is 15 times more likely to be incarcerated. A First Nations woman is 21 times more likely.

This month, in the NT, 100 percent of kids in juvenile detention are First Nations children

Facts such as these are a shame upon us all.

The Commissioner reflected in his speech on the theme of National Reconciliation Week this year ‘Don’t Make History a Mystery’. He acknowledged that some of his comments may be confronting – but that truth-telling is an important part of enabling and facilitating change.

Truth-telling is the first step towards changing a relationship for a better future.

Reforming our justice system into one which delivers justice for First Nations people is part of the national truth-telling that needs to occur in this country. The WA Police Commissioner should be congratulated for his leadership and courage.

This piece was originally published in the Koori Mail on Wedesday, 8 August 2018.


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