Please note: This story contains reference to and an image of someone who has died.
The family of Tanya Day, the Yorta Yorta woman who died in police custody after being arrested for falling asleep on a train, says new sites trialling a health-based response to public drunkenness are welcome but “long overdue”.
On Monday the Victorian government said four sites will be established in Shepparton, Castlemaine, Dandenong and Yarra.
Ms Day, a mother and grandmother, died after sustaining traumatic brain injuries in custody in 2017.
The 55 year-old was taken to Castlemaine police station after being arrested for public drunkenness and was left unattended in a holding cell. Overnight she fell and hit her head at least five times.
A Victorian coroner found “an indictable offence may have been committed” by the police officers, who she said had failed to adequately check on Ms Day’s safety, security, health and welfare, but the officers avoided criminal charges.
Ms Day’s family has long campaigned for public drunkenness to be decriminalised – a move first recommended by the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody 30 years ago.
The Victorian government committed to instituting that reform in 2019 during the coronial inquest into the death of Ms Day, and the change passed parliament earlier this year.
A two-year implementation period will see four new trial sites treating public drunkenness as a health issue, not a crime.
Ms Day’s family issued a statement on Monday welcoming the announcement.
“Our Mum’s case shows that police cells are unsafe places, and that’s why no person should ever be locked up in a police cell for being drunk in a public place,” they said.
“The trial sites are an opportunity to test the long-overdue public health response to public drunkenness.”
The statement also made clear that the family believes police should not be involved in the process of responding to public drunkenness.
“Police shouldn’t play any role in a public health response, given that whenever police have broad powers it opens the way for discriminatory policing, too often experienced by Aboriginal people like our Mum.”
“For these reforms to work, there must be a full transition away from the current criminal law approach to a genuine and best practice public health one that does not involve police.”
The Victorian government said that the new model, which will include more outreach services, sobering-up services and training for first responders, will promote “therapeutic and culturally safe” pathways to assist people who are drunk.
The sites, which will be managed in partnership with Aboriginal organisations and local health services, and will open in early 2022.
By Giovanni Torre