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Issue #1763      February 1, 2017

Coroner says Ms Dhu’s treatment was inhumane

Aboriginal leaders, including from the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, want Western Australian authorities involved in the death of Ms Dhu prosecuted. The call comes after WA Coroner Ros Fogliani found the 22-year-old Aboriginal woman was treated inhumanely by police and her death could have been prevented.

Ms Dhu, whose first name is not used for cultural reasons, died two days after being locked up at South Hedland Police Station in August 2014 for unpaid fines totalling $3,622, stemming from charges including assaulting police.

She died during her third visit in as many days to the Hedland Health Campus in the Pilbara from staphylococcal septicaemia and pneumonia after an infection in her fractured ribs spread to her lungs.

Some police testified they thought Ms Dhu was faking illness and was coming down from drugs, while some medical staff also thought she was exaggerating and had behavioural issues.

Coroner Fogliani found that Ms Dhu’s death could have been prevented if her illness had been diagnosed earlier and she had been given antibiotics, adding that her overall care was below expected standards.

National Congress co-chair Jackie Huggins says there should be prosecutions. “Whilst Congress cautiously welcomes the recommendations from the coroner, we strongly believe that the findings fall short and should recommend prosecution for those whose negligence and racism (whether unconscious or conscious) resulted in the death of a young Yamatji Nanda/Bunjima woman,” she said.

Fellow co-chair Rod Little said the Congress would continue to advocate for accountability and a shift towards preventative measures within the justice system.

WA Police Commissioner Karl O’Callaghan said the images of Ms Dhu’s treatment were disturbing. WA Premier Colin Barnett said the police seen on security footage manhandling Ms Dhu were in a “difficult situation”, but her death should not have occurred.

Unprofessional actions

In her report, the coroner said Ms Dhu’s suffering as she lay close to death in the lockup was compounded by the unprofessional and inhumane actions of some officers.

Ms Fogliani agreed to release footage showing Ms Dhu’s final hours, including police dragging and carrying Ms Dhu’s limp body to a police van. Another clip shows an officer pulling Ms Dhu by the wrist to sit her up before dropping her, causing her to hit her head.

While police did not contribute to Ms Dhu’s death, irreversible failings were made, and Ms Fogliani said it was profoundly disturbing to witness the appalling treatment of Ms Dhu on the day she died. “Ms Dhu was dearly loved by her family and her death has left them heartbroken,” she said.

“In her final hours she was unable to have the comfort of the presence of her loved ones, and was in the care of a number of police officers who disregarded her welfare and her right to humane and dignified treatment.”

Ms Fogliani made several recommendations, including changes to the law so a warrant authorising imprisonment was no longer an option for unpaid fines, and instead, a magistrate would make the decision.

Ms Fogliani said she hoped her recommendations would prevent similar deaths.

“It is my expectation not to see such treatment of a person held in custody again,” she said. Some people in the packed court room shouted “Racism!” and “Shame on you!” after the coroner finished her remarks.

Outside court, Ms Dhu’s grandmother Carol Roe became emotional talking about the two-year wait for answers.

The family said they were disappointed because no one had been held accountable. “[I was hoping for] justice and I still haven’t got it,” Ms Dhu’s mother Della Roe said.

WA Police Commissioner Karl O’Callaghan said the images of Ms Dhu’s treatment were disturbing and police had obligations to people in custody.

“We are the guardians of their safety, their welfare and, of course, their dignity, and I accept that we failed Ms Dhu in this regard,” he said.

“She was not treated with the right level of human compassion or dignity.”

Koori Mail

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