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Legal groups demand greater transparency as data shows Indigenous deaths in custody on the rise

Dechlan Brennan -

The following article contains the name of people who have died

Legal groups have sounded the alarm over the latest figures showing annual Indigenous deaths in police custody have doubled since 2007, with one firm labelling the trend "shameful."

Both the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service (VALS) and the National Justice Project (NJP) have been at the forefront of representing Indigenous families who have lost loved ones whilst in custody.

VALS chief executive and Yorta Yorta and Narrandjeri woman, Nerita Waight, said governments were not doing enough to to close the gap in the way people are policed.

"Our people are overpoliced and overincarcerated," Ms Waight told National Indigenous Times.

"Police forces around are Australia were created in the early colonisation of Australia and designed to enable the oppression and genocide of our people.

"That systemic racism remains part of the culture of all police forces in this place and that is contributing to Aboriginal deaths in police custody."

Ms Waight highlighted the fact 555 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander deaths in custody since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody in 1991 (RCIADIC).

"Deaths in custody create so much generational trauma for our people," Ms Waight said. "Governments across Australia need to shift resources away from police forces and invest in the things that build strong communities – education, health, housing, and employment."

Associate legal director at NJP Ashleigh Buckett said the findings were a "direct consequence of the Australian government's failure over the past 30 years to implement the recommendations of its own RCIADIC."

"Accountability is essential to preventing future tragic deaths," she said.

"There have been over Aboriginal 500 deaths in custody since the landmark Royal Commission in 1991, with very few prosecutions.

NJP represent Dunghutti Elder Leetona Dungay, whose son David Dungay Jr was killed in Long Bay Correctional Centre and whose last words were "I can't breathe."

"[Leetona Dungay] is calling for the UN Human Rights Committee to make clear that the Australian government has an obligation to prosecute those responsible for Aboriginal deaths in custody," Ms Buckett said.

"The government already has the recommendations to guide its response, the question now is whether it has the will."

A rally attended by hundreds in December to mark the eight anniversary of David's death heard Ms Dungay had submitted a landmark complaint to the UN to demand justice for her son.

AAP reported on Tuesday data released from the Productivity Commission showed a total of 40 people died in the custody of police between July 2022 and June 2023; a quarter of the deaths were Indigenous people despite making up less than 4 per cent of the national population. In 2007-08, this number was only five.

Whilst the data does not disclose if the deaths occurred in close contact with officers or in custody-related operations such as a siege or pursuit, it highlights a growing concern from the general public about Indigenous deaths in custody.

The last financial year deadliest period on record for Indigenous deaths in custody since records began. Deaths included 28-year-old Noongar man Jeffrey Winmar, who died in the aftermath of his arrest in Melbourne, and 16-year-old Cleveland Dodd, who died after being found unresponsive in his cell at Unit 18 in the adult Casuarina prison.

Perceptions of police integrity are also at record lows with public belief in the honesty of the force dropping 10 points from a decade ago to 66.5 per cent.

Last year saw an officer found guilty for assaulting an Indigenous teenager, whilst external reviews found NSW police were interviewing Indigenous children even after they had requested not to, and routinely did not wear body cameras during arrests.

Multiple legal and Indigenous groups have called for greater police transparency and oversight in all jurisdictions across Australia.

13YARN 13 92 76

Aboriginal Counselling Services 0410 539 905

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