Megan Krakouer and Gerry Georgatos work extensively in the suicide prevention space. Here they continue to shine light on one of many Blak lives betrayed. They have supported the family of Ms Dhu since the day of her tragic loss.
Please note this story contains reference to someone who has died.
Some say Ms Dhu died in the cell of a police watch house. We say she was killed.
On August 2, 2014, a distress call went to South Hedland Police. Ms Dhu was in need of protection from an incident where she was allegedly at risk. Instead of supporting her, they arrested her.
A background check had found that there was a warrant for unpaid fines. Her poverty worked against her. Forty hours later, as she took her last breaths, her fading light would be a police watch house ceiling.
For nearly six years, we have stood alongside the family and soaked up some of their heart-wrenching grief. It is beyond comprehension why no police officer in the South Hedland Police watch house demonstrated the common sense, the compassion, to apply CPR when they found her unconscious.
It is our view that the police contributed to the death of Ms Dhu. It is our view that racism and classism played a part both consciously and unconsciously in her death.
Ms Dhu was pronounced dead at the Hedland Health Campus. A decade earlier, Mulrunji Doomadgee died in a Palm Island Police watch house cell; November 19, 2004.
The death of Mulrunji led to Palm Islanders burning down the local police station. Public outcries and rage surfaced, but until recently they remained shy of any hope for justice and reform.
The findings alone of the coronial inquest into Mulrunji’s death compiled 35 pages. The findings of the coronial investigation into Ms Dhu’s death comprised a staggering 165 pages. Tragically, they remain just words on paper.
Page 32 of the inquest findings into the death of Mulrunji reads:
“Mulrunji cried out for help from the cell after being fatally injured, and no help came.
“The images from the cell video tape of Mulrunji, writhing in pain as he lay dying on the cell floor, were shocking and terribly distressing to family and anyone who sat through that portion of the evidence.”
If we were to replace Mulrunji in the above with Ms Dhu, it would be an indisputably accurate summary of what occurred a decade later on the other side of the continent in the South Hedland Police watch house.
Most Australians know all too well, the cries of help from Ms Dhu to police and to the Hedland Health Campus nurses and doctors. These cries went unheard.
Page 83 of Ms Dhu’s coronial findings reads:
“Ms Dhu’s suffering as she lay close to death at the lock-up was compounded by the unprofessional and inhumane actions of some of the police officers there.
“All of the persons involved were affected, to different degrees, by underlying preconceptions about Ms Dhu that were ultimately reflected, not in what they said about her, but in how they treated her.”
We have written tens of thousands of words, many articles, on the tragic death of 22-year-old Ms Dhu. Six years since the death of Ms Dhu, little has changed. This is reflected in the phenomena of the heart-wrenching Black Lives Matter movement and protests continuing across the world.
Article 10(1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights says: “All persons deprived of their liberty shall be treated with humanity and respect for the inherent dignity of the human person.”
In terms of Blak lives lost, Mulrunji Doomadgee was the 147th Blak death in custody since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.
Ms Dhu was the 340th. The death of a man last Friday, in Western Australia’s Acacia Prison, was the 435th death.
We agree with the family of Ms Dhu that police and health personnel should be held accountable if we are to be an equitable civil society.
In pursuit of this equitable civil society, police should not investigate police.
For too long, they have had each other’s backs. This has led to an erosion of trust between marginalised peoples and police.
Worst of all, because of this reprehensible failure to deliver systemic change, people’s lives are lost again and again.
Ms Dhu’s father, the late Robert Dhu, said: “She was treated like a dog.”
Ms Dhu’s mother, Della Roe, said: “I relive my daughter each day, but my beautiful baby is here no longer.”
Ms Dhu’s grandmother, Carol Roe, said: “They should have helped her, and not lock her up, not treat her like she did not matter.”
Police in every jurisdiction can lead from the front to ensure systemic changes that will put an end to Blak deaths in custody. By so doing, we can build a trust between police and community that everyone not just yearns for, but needs.
By Megan Krakouer and Gerry Georgatos
Megan Krakouer is a Mineng Noongar woman from Mt Barker in Western Australia’s southwest. Presently, Megan is the Director of the National Suicide Prevention and Trauma Recovery (NSPTRP) and also works as a human rights legal practitioner for the National Justice Project.
Gerry Georgatos, the son of CALD migrants, is a suicide prevention and poverty researcher with an experiential focus. He has a Masters in Human Rights Education and a Masters in Social Justice Advocacy & Civil Rights Arbitration. He is the National Coordinator of the NSPTRP.