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NT Aboriginal Justice Agreement director shines light on systemic racism at inquest into killing of Kumanaji Walker

Giovanni Torre -

Leanne Liddle, director of the Northern Territory's Aboriginal Justice Unit, has spoken at the coronial inquest into the death of Kumanjayi Walker, the Yuendumu teenager shot and killed by Constable Zachary Rolfe.

The raid during which Rolfe shot Mr Walker three times has been widely condemned, including by senior NT police.

Ms Liddle issued a summary statement after speaking at the inquest on Monday.

"Personally, it [the consultation process of the Aboriginal Justice Agreement] was one of the most depressing and saddest experiences of my life," she said.

"I was devastated to see the fear and despair and hopelessness in the faces and voices of Aboriginal people, young, old, men, women and children in so many communities and towns."

"Describing it as 'devastating', is an understatement. I knew and thought we would hear issues about police and poor practice, but I can't recall any community who told me what was working, let alone what service provider was delivering a program that worked.

"People told us that they thought that the treatment and responses they received by police specifically would not happen if they were non-Aboriginal. People told us that they felt they were made to feel like they were sub-human. That they were treated differently because of their skin colour."

Ms Liddle said the Aboriginal Justice Agreement consultation team visited the Yuendemu community on the 9th of July 2020, "not long after Kumanjayi's funeral".

"The crowd talked about how they used to work well with the police in the past, but things had changed. I spoke to individuals about how this had changed they said that they didn't have the relationship that they once had in the 'old days' with police and how now, the police didn't respect them," she said.

"I have seen so many examples of systemic racism in the NT Police Force. I recall on one consult [for the Aboriginal Justice Agreement], a Senior Sergeant of a remote police station, who in front of his junior colleague said to me when I asked him what did he believe was the answer to reducing incarceration of Aboriginal people. He said 'the only hope you mob have is to stop breeding for the next 10 to 15 years'."

"I didn't want this person working in an Aboriginal community again, but to my surprise this officer was transferred to another Aboriginal community with a promotion- and then they told me as I had signed off on it there could be no further action - only for that officer to turn up again in another Aboriginal community when I was doing a consult some 10 months later."

Ms Liddle said addressing systemic racism will allow Aboriginal people to engage with police and government services, "they would then have a voice, which would empower them to be heard and to work with government and police to build, retain or restore a safe community".

"Addressing systemic racism would have ensured that police were sensitive to community expectations and concerns so that police would not have worn exposed firearms in Yuendemu," she said.

"Police would have respected the cultural requirements of Kumanjayi Walker and requests from community and also the plans of local police to allow Kumanjayi Walker to attend the funeral before his arrest."

Ms Liddle said that if systemic racism had been addressed and resolved, "police would have understood cognitive disability and recognised FASD symptoms and responded differently to an individual with such a disability".

"They could have approached him differently and treated his responses as a health issue they could have attempted to deescalate any tense situations rather than undertake a frightening raid whilst Kumanjayi Walker was sleeping," she said.

"If systemic racism was addressed, police officers would not have brought the Territory Response Group into the community in response to a local police respite call as this was not an appropriate team to bring to Yuendemu."

National Justice Project chief executive George Newhouse, whose firm represents Ms Liddle, said her testimony "reveals the true scale of the problem in NT Police".

"There is an urgent need for the NT police to accept that systemic racism exists, and that they need to develop an anti-racism policy. That policy, together with all policies that affect Aboriginal communities, must be developed in consultation with Aboriginal communities' leadership," he said.

During the course of the inquest Rolfe's racist text messages and "bragging" about the use of force have been examined, among other issues, and the police officer has also been accused of attempting to pervert the course of justice.

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