The Kumanjayi Walker Inquest: Bodycam, fear and the unmaking of intercultural relations

Bodycam

The court attendant presses play on the video file. Heavily tattooed arms appear on screen. Time coding identifies the film as recorded on 9 November 2019 by an AXON BODY police-issue camera. The tattooed arms bring forward an A4 sheet of paper, a printed map, before sliding it away onto the dashboard of the moving car. Muted blue of a sunset sky frames the interior of the car. A right arm gestures into the near distance and the left arm moves to open the passenger-side door. The car has not yet come to a standstill. The police officer is impatient, keen to go. As he exits the car, we glimpse the blue signage of the Northern Territory police paddy wagon before the bodyworn camera moves to scan the wider scene. Red earth ground. Wind-swept detritus clings to a chest-high cyclone fence. Sheets of corrugated iron lie about. As the officer enters the yard a small dog barks its alarm and another responds.

Roland. There’s a door here, there’s a door here. An arm gestures. I got an old man at the front I want to talk to. Want to cover that door?

A second police car is parked on the adjacent side of the block.

The officer moves towards the house. Water pools around a leaking tap. The yard and open verandah are strewn with plastic bottles, paper, discarded consumer packaging. A kid’s motorbike lies parked on its side on the porch. There are car tyres, a large red flour drum, a metal rubbish skip. Chairs and a table are scattered at the side of the house.

Hey sir. Hey sir, how are you. Is this your house mate?

What’s that?

Is this your house?

It’s my dad’s house

Your dad’s house. E-’s house, eh?

A muffled reply.

Two officers move into frame, both uniformed. One, carrying a long-arm rifle, stands at a distance. The other walks to the far end of the house.

Hey man my name’s Zac. Nice to meet you mate.

How you doing?

Hey, we’re here to grab A- up, eh. Is he inside?

The man looks around warily. No one must be here.

Do you know where A- is? ‘Cos we gotta get him before he… Is he over that way?

Do you mind if I check inside?

The yelps of the two small dogs have been joined by several others in a growing chorus of alarm.

You show me on this map. The officer pulls out his mobile phone, selects an image from his photo collection and pushes the phone in front of the man’s face.

On the other side of this oval?

Pause. Just around this area here.

I might just check this house real quick.

Who’s he staying with over here?

No one but me.

No, but who’s he with? Who’s he staying with?

The tone is insistent, impatient.

I’ll just check this to make sure it’s all safe.

What’s your name again sir?

What?

What’s your name?

E-.

Nice to meet you man.

Hey Jimmy, I’m gonna go in.

Jimmy was talking to this girl.

The officer strides onto the porch, past a large freezer.

Two puppies stand guard in the doorway, which opens onto a kitchen. A ceiling fan whirs above a dust-coloured stove, a fridge with its bottom freezer door ajar. Large cupboards, a kettle on a stainless-steel bench. A third puppy lies in the middle of the kitchen floor, enjoying the effect of the fan. The officer moves through the kitchen into a dark empty room, and then swiftly through the house, room after room. He pauses momentarily when he comes across two children sitting on a blanket playing a video game on a large wall-mounted monitor. They look up briefly as he enters before returning their eyes to the screen.

Another officer has appeared. Hey little mate. That’s the boy I was talking to.

The officer and his bodyworn camera move on, room by room. A torch now illuminates the passage through the house. Bathroom. Toilet. Bedrooms. The officer lowers himself to the floor to shine his torch under a bed. As he exits the house his camera scans a child’s pink car, mattresses, dirty walls.

The two officers leave the house.

Thank you sir.

Throughout the house inspection the officer holding the long-arm rifle has been standing in the yard, alongside the uneasy Warlpiri resident.

So E-, he’s with R-, eh? Do you know which house in particular he’s in? The officer pulls out the phone map again and holds it up to his interlocutor. The two men confer over the likely location of the police target.

Come through here. The camera moves again as both officers stride towards the back fence.

I’m going off.

***

This vision was recorded just minutes before constables Zachary Rolfe and Adam Eberl strode into house 511 in the Central Australian township of Yuendumu and attempted to arrest the nineteen-year-old man we now know as Kumanjayi Walker. In the ensuring altercation, Rolfe shot Walker three times at close range. The Warlpiri-Luritja man would die that same evening inside the Yuendumu police station, surrounded by the uniformed men who had fatally wounded and apprehended him.

The circumstances of Kumanjayi Walker’s death shattered his family and community and triggered national and international outcry. The 2022 murder trial in which Rolfe was exonerated provided one particularly straitened perspective on these circumstances, revealing more about the power of judicial practice to establish tight frames for the admissibility of evidence and the instruction of a jury than the delivery of justice. Very different partial views have appeared via public demonstrations of the distress, trauma and anger of Kumanjayi Walker’s family and the calls of Warlpiri leaders for ‘justice for Walker’. These calls demand a proper accounting for this death, as well as a transformative legislative response.

The coronial inquest into Kumanjayi’s death, which somewhat unusually followed the murder trial and thus far has run in interrupted sittings for more than three months, was framed at the outset to address questions left unanswered by the trial. Its terms of investigation were wide-ranging. Much evidence that was declared inadmissible at trial has been publicly aired and closely scrutinised at the inquest. Beyond circumstances directly surrounding the killing, the inquest would also consider the potential influence of structural racism, the militarisation of the Northern Territory police and the disempowerment of Warlpiri brought about by shifts in government legislation.

The Walker inquest has been a thoroughly techno-mediated event. Along with bodycam footage, mobile-phone-recorded photographs, videos and text messages are primary and closely scrutinised forms of evidence. Witnesses have commonly appeared via video link. Daily proceedings have been live streamed and made available for public viewing, providing an unusual level of access to evidence presented as well as lengthy and at times excruciating cross-examination. Reaching out of the courtroom, through the questioning of witnesses a picture has emerged of myriad computer databases, alert and risk management systems through which the workings of police, government, youth corrections and medical care and administration are conducted. Disconnects between those digital systems, their surveillance of Aboriginal subjects and human decision-making have been a constant theme.

This essay asks, what does the unusually broad purview and technological reach of this inquest allow Australians to see? Its central proposition is that Kumanjayi Walker’s killing cannot be explained away by the actions of a renegade cop, nor by a bungled police operation, nor by transformations in police culture. In order to understand what took place at Yuendumu on 9 November 2019, it is necessary to look more widely, to explore the workings of a creeping and dispersed cultural attitude. This attitude at once structures and extends beyond relationships between Warlpiri and the police directly implicated in Kumanjayi’s death. It is an attitude that currently threads through policing, the delivery of resources and the governance of small Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory. Ultimately, this attitude also orients and implicates those of us living elsewhere in Australia and those who reside there in particular ways. It is an attitude whose key ingredient is distance. This distance is established and enabled via technologised means, creating an impression of proximity within a narrow frame of attention.

The paradoxical cultural attitude I write of is enacted in the scene and the interactions captured on Zachary Rolfe’s bodycam footage. The use of bodyworn cameras by Northern Territory police is a relatively new development; the technology has only been available since 2018. Bodyworn camera footage has been a central character in this play; indeed, it is difficult to imagine the inquest without its animating presence. The replaying of video files to the court both dramatises and at times throws into stark relief witness accounts of events. Bodycam exposes a fault line of vulnerability and truthfulness. Bodycam footage cracks into discursive accounts, dissolving smooth performances of authority just as it provides irrefutable evidence of instances of brutal and unacceptable use of force. It serves as an official documentary artefact and as a source of entertainment and boasting among cowboy cops. Rolfe’s bodycam in turn provided the means by which his superiors were able to crack the passcode to his mobile phone after he himself refused to divulge it.

Bodycam, like other modes of digital imaging, brings the viewer close, providing an intimate, seemingly unobstructed view of unfolding activity in real recorded time. Rolfe’s legal team put forward this observation in their vigorous objections to the admissibility of a series of offensive text messages that had been retrieved from Rolfe’s phone. The lawyers argued that the availability of bodycam footage provided all the evidence that was required to gain a full appreciation of the events surrounding Kumanjayi Walker’s shooting and death. Any broader context, such as text messages sent and received by police that revealed ‘disgusting’ and ‘racist’ attitudes, they argued, was out of scope, not relevant, beyond the terms of proper coronial investigation. The coroner overruled these objections. The idea that bodycam might provide an all-seeing eye on policing practice was in turn undercut by revelations of countless incidents where police intervened in the operation of their bodyworn cameras as well as the circulation of captured footage.

Just as bodycam images appear to bring an observer close and provide an intimate vantage on exchanges between police and Warlpiri residents, they simultaneously expose a wide distance between Warlpiri and mainstream Australian styles of living. As with the footage described above, this distance has two dimensions; it enfolds profound cultural difference and gruelling economic poverty in a knotty conjunction.

Techno-mediated distance is not simply a feature of relationships between people living at Yuendumu and those of us living elsewhere. It has been exposed as a bleak and entrenched element of relationships between those who live and work alongside each other in this Central Australian town. Distance and distrust between Warlpiri and police, clinic staff and other service providers have emerged as disturbing and persistent themes. Various lines of questioning at the inquest attempted to prise open a view of the larger social world of the town that could explain why, on the night Kumanjayi was shot, police would barricade themselves inside the police station, refuse to communicate, and undertake an elaborate deception of the fatally injured man’s relatives and community leaders and their own Aboriginal Community Police Officer colleague, who were all anxiously assembled outside.

Some of the most chilling elements of Warlpiri testimony have centred not upon the shooting per se, but on the constellation of attitudes exposed by the shooting and its aftermath. Warlpiri witnesses gave deeply upsetting accounts of how they were made to feel utterly disregarded, disrespected and accordingly scared and fearful of what might happen next on the night of the shooting. While inquests conventionally investigate circumstances around a death, Warlpiri demanded the examination of a larger context—a complex bundle of relationships, practices, actions, processes and attitudes rarely considered in a courtroom setting. This included an eloquent account of how Warlpiri understand the need for them to be well-behaved—‘compliant’—in their dealings with police. ‘We know we have to be on our best behaviour’. The alternative, of appearing angry and ready for a fight, seemingly at risk of ‘rioting’, would, they knew, trigger yet more police intervention.

Thus as Warlpiri gathered together out the front of the police station that night, they also filmed themselves gathered together as they waited anxiously, in dismay and disbelief at police refusing to communicate with them. They filmed themselves to ensure they had a truthful record that could prove the people assembled were calm and composed in the face of such refusal. Without such recordings, no one would believe that they had remained calm. Yet people feared for what had happened to Kumanjayi and what might follow. The Immediate Response Team police from Alice Springs who had been involved in the shooting had been patrolling the community with military-style rifles. They had carried these weapons into people’s house yards.

On the second day of the inquest, Aboriginal Community Police Officer Derek Williams was asked whether he was ever invited to have dinner at the homes of any of his kardiya (white) colleagues. The answer was a qualified yes—apparently not the answer the sympathetic lawyer performing this cross-examination had anticipated. ‘And have you ever invited your colleagues over to your house for dinner?’ ‘No’. ‘But you would invite other people for dinner’, the lawyer suggested. The Warlpiri man looked unsettled, confused, affronted by this line of questioning. ‘No. Only family’. In days that followed, a similar line of questioning was put to other police witnesses. It was established that very little dinner-party-style socialising occurred at Yuendumu between white and black police. But did this revelation so straightforwardly confirm the grim social segregation that seemed to be assumed in the questioning of the anti-racist lawyer, or did it expose their own presumptions?

To lesser and greater degrees, Australian society celebrates those elements of Aboriginal culture that are easily assimilable: art, ceremony, Country, linguistic diversity. But aside from a vague sense that ‘family’ is important to First Nations people, we tend to have little understanding of what it means to live and to be oriented to the world and other people as a member of a kinship-based society governed by its own coherent body of customary law. The hospitality Warlpiri extend to those who come to live and work on their land is often warm and gracious, but it is also differently organised to the individualised liberal mode that presumes settings such as dinner parties as the mainstay for convivial interchange and friendship.

Fear

At the darkest end of the distanced attitude lies fear. The sergeant in charge of Yuendumu police station gave evidence that her first reaction on hearing that Kumanjayi had been shot was fear—that she was ‘extremely scared’ of what would happen next and especially concerned for the security of the police compound. There were rocks being thrown on the roof of the station building. ‘I knew that there was anger out the front, so knowing that the community, you know the community are generally, would seek payback and it would—it could be quite violent towards us’.

When fear is dispersed and becomes entrenched it has the insidious effect of closing down interpersonal and cross-cultural interactions. Fear confirms its own presumptions. Fear begets fear. On the day of Kumanjayi’s shooting the Yuendumu clinic staff had fled the town, fearful for their safety following a series of break-ins at their accommodation. In an examination of circumstances leading up to their departure, the inquest heard that Yuendumu clinic staff had created a separate social world unto themselves. Clinic staff only ever socialised with each other (at the risk of over-generalising, historically it had been common in this town for clinic staff to socialise with police and store managers). Nurses told the coroner that they always travelled the small distance between their Colorbond bunkered accommodation and the health clinic by car. It was, one nurse told the inquest, not safe to walk around the town. She had been encouraged to adopt such a mode of segregated dwelling since the time of her arrival. Remote towns have ‘plagues’ of dogs. People ‘riot to sort out their problems’. The duty of remote nursing staff was to maintain ‘boundaries’ while ‘caring’ for residents of the town. Systems thinking and detachment were presented as rule-of-thumb principles of ‘old school’ nursing.

Distance also marks the difference between cultured styles of life. The oft-described remoteness of small Aboriginal towns has historically been a vital factor in residents’ capacity to sustain and reproduce their vibrant languages, strong ceremonial life and place-based ways of relating between people and Country. In the mid-1990s I spent just short of two years living at Yuendumu while undertaking research towards a doctorate in anthropology. That research was influenced by the determined efforts I observed being made towards the production of a dynamic intercultural community at that time, one grounded in distinctive forms of ‘two ways’ cooperation being pursued between yapa (Warlpiri) and kardiya (whites). The work was often difficult, often frustrating. It was also rewarding and at times exhilarating. There was a pervasive feeling of future-focused possibility framed by the wide-open spaces and stretching horizons of the Central Desert spinifex plain.

The Yuendumu we glimpse through the eyes of police, nurses, bureaucrats and service providers called to account for events surrounding the death of Kumanjayi Walker bears no resemblance to the place that I was welcomed into three decades ago. These changes have not come about overnight. Across the intervening years from 1997 to the present, the character of remote townships in the Northern Territory has significantly shifted. How and why has this shift come about?

The answer lies in a complex conjunction of changing government policy and wider public attitude to small Aboriginal towns, as well as in Aboriginal people’s responses to those changes. It is necessary to look to the policy setting in order to understand how and why it is that police now have unimpeded powers to enter houses in towns such as Yuendumu. Similarly, these changes speak to transformations in the wider culture of governance. A longer view reveals a constellation of intractable challenges—in housing, employment and meaningful productive activity, chronic health conditions, substance abuse, premature deaths. These challenges mark the distance, the ‘gap’, that a string of governments has promised and failed to close between the wellbeing indicators of mainstream and Aboriginal Australia.

Political philosopher Axel Honneth identifies a primary dimension of what I identify as a ‘distanced attitude’. In his 1992 essay ‘Integrity and Disrespect: Principles of a Conception of Morality Based on the Theory of Recognition’, Honneth observes that respect—in positive as well as negative modes—is a reflective rather than properly interactive attitude. Respect is a thin and deficient form of encounter between a self and an other. It requires no genuine engagement, nor openness to a response from the other that might change one’s point of view. Respect shadows the sedimented expectations which frame the way any of us might regard a stranger on the street. Disrespect can be felt with a force akin to abandonment. Honneth, taking up the work of social psychologist George Herbert Mead, reminds us that every person is dependent upon the possibility of constant reassurance and that the intimate space of self-other encounters is ground zero for such affirmation.

The experience of disrespect is a direct affront to the need for such reassurance. Disrespect does profound damage at the level of the person. Scaled up, it runs along racialised lines in Australia as elsewhere, marking the ground of dislocated existence for First Nations communities as well as migrants. Ultimately, Honneth observes, if being disrespected becomes commonplace it ‘poses the risk of injury that can cause the identity of the entire person to collapse’.

Such an attitude marks the character of a lot of what occurred across the Australian continent in the early brutal years of colonial invasion. It is a vital ingredient to the othering that enables one person to kill another, and that rationalises the dispossession and destruction of entire societies in the name of European progress. On Warlpiri Country this process acquired purposeful intent in the 1920s and was felt most profoundly with the granting of a pastoral lease over Pikilyi, a tract of land of great cultural significance which contains the only precious permanent water source throughout the vast Tanami Desert. Having secured the pastoral lease and named it Mt Doreen for his wife, William Braitling set about a brutal campaign to exclude Warlpiri from the life-giving spring and surrounding lush hunting grounds. Through their starvation he forced them to mine wolfram in return for meagre food supplies. There were documented cases of malnutrition, of floggings, of women and girls suffering venereal disease, of a group of Warlpiri being neck-chained and forced to walk the 250 miles to Alice Springs as part of investigations into the death of a white man. The work of missionaries and anthropologists to expose the brutal conditions on Mt Doreen station was one significant factor in the establishment of settlements and reserves across Central Australia in the 1940s and 1950s.

There is a tendency to read such horrors of the past as if they can be slotted into a bygone colonial era. But the exclusion of Warlpiri from Pikilyi has continued to the present, despite the granting of land rights and then native title over the area. Warlpiri fear of three generations of Braitling men was reproduced across the twentieth and into the twenty-first centuries. There was a hopeful moment in the mid-1990s when a carefully conceived purchase plan was mounted on behalf of traditional owners, but the consent required from the Northern Territory Minister for Lands was not forthcoming. In 2022, more than 90 years after the original lease was first granted, the Braitling family finally sold the station and its stock to a large corporate interest for a reported $70 million.

The story of Pikilyi being repurposed as Mt Doreen station is one of many similar episodes of the emptying of Aboriginal place as locus of security—a case study in the way dispossession works as a structured relationship with profound spiritual, cultural, social, psychological and economic consequences—and the simultaneous entrenchment of wariness and distrust between Warlpiri and settler Australians.

A more optimistic window was prised open from the late 1960s to the mid-1990s, promising different possibilities in the Northern Territory—for Aboriginal people wishing to re-establish customary ways of living and for new forms of community development, as well as for differently figured relationships with wider Australia. Structural distance was breached in significant ways throughout this period. From the election of the first Howard government in 1996, however, that window began to close again. Over the subsequent two and half decades, and especially in the wake of the Northern Territory Intervention in 2007, residents of small Aboriginal towns have experienced transformations resulting in their profound disempowerment and the deliberate withdrawal of institutionally recognised forms of authority over their communities. Instance after instance of decision-making on the day of Kumanjayi’s death reveals the exclusion of Warlpiri from positions of authority and oversight of service provision in their town. The quest to understand the death of Kumanjayi Walker has progressively opened out to reveal a wider plain of consequence. Withdrawal; disengagement; lack of trust; betrayal.

***

At any one time, seated snugly around the courtroom’s two large bar tables are as many as sixteen legal counsel representing diverse and contesting interests. The inquest conducts its work with its large cast of witnesses through several distinct registers—forensic scrutiny, moral reprehension, and an aspirational, future-focused mode. Forensic scrutiny is the conventional format of cross-examination. It is an approach that at times appears blunt and brutal in the insistence with which it is deployed, and especially when compared with Warlpiri etiquette that privileges styles of indirect communication. Moral reprehension is the inquest’s redemptive mode, wide-ranging and humanistic when compared with criminal proceedings. This register of interrogation distinguishes right from wrong. It identifies and calls out socially unacceptable behaviour and highlights ‘best practice’. Then there are the larger idealistic ambitions energetically pursued by the anti-racist legal fraternity, shaping recommendations that aspire to changes in the world beyond the court setting. Often coronial recommendations are narrow, technical and legal in nature. In the case of the Kumanjayi Walker inquest, the character of courtroom discussion pushes at the very structures of settler-colonial governance and questions of how something as basic and complex as Aboriginal community control might be rebuilt more than a decade and a half after such institutions were deliberately dismantled.

Cultures of policing

Bifocal attention to transforming cultures of policing—did the behaviour of the Immediate Response Team personnel deployed to Yuendumu with semi-automatic long-arm rifles confirm that policing in the Northern Territory has been militarised?—and the dismantling of Aboriginal cultural authority has exposed the way in which what was a broadly respectful attitude to customary law in an earlier period has been shrunk to a disembedded focus on ‘payback’ as the delivery of grievous bodily harm. The spectre of ‘payback’ has been invoked in so many elements of police evidence, including as the justification for their refusal to communicate with Warlpiri leaders on the night Kumanjayi was shot. Police told the coroner they feared a potential riot, that the police station would be overrun, that the community might enact ‘payback’ against the police for Kumanjayi’s death. The officer in command, freshly deployed from Darwin to oversee the immediate response to the shooting, would later apologise for the insensitive nature of his briefing of Kumanjayi’s family the morning following the young man’s death, and for referring to him by an incorrect name.

What emerges from this picture is a grim indication of just how far, by 2019, relationships between Warlpiri and police had deteriorated. A shifting policing landscape in the Northern Territory from 1997 onwards had progressively directed police to disregard customary law and by extension to disengage with Aboriginal modes of conflict dispute and the kin-based relationships through which such practices operate. In the time of government insistence on individual responsibility and a wider disparagement of extended kinship as harbouring ‘humbugging’ and as justification for compulsory income management, there would be little reason for police and other service providers to approach Warlpiri culture with openness and interest. At the same time, the work of policing has been transformed by the same techno-administrative processes that have made over the wider world of work. Many more police hours are spent in front of computer screens wrangling databases, alert systems and reporting interfaces than in interactions with persons. It is a predictable outcome of such transformations that there would a significant loss of interpersonal relationships of trust as well as of experience-based knowledge of how small Aboriginal communities function.

There has been plenty of evidence to suggest police are over-worked and fatigued, in some instances going more than twenty-four hours without sleep as a result of so many call-outs to attend, break-and-enter and domestic violence incidents, during a period of protracted unrest. Yet their vulnerability had a deeper dimension too; it was clear that police simply didn’t know who were the right senior people to communicate with following Kumanjayi’s death. They were accustomed to observing Warlpiri as ‘very emotional’ when confronted with news of a death. Consequently, they were fearful, leading to their use of avoidance, pretence, lies, tricks: ‘we had to do that for safety reasons’, the coroner was told. And just as Warlpiri were filming themselves, they were also filming police. Police witnesses justified their fear of retribution, telling the coroner that as they moved through the darkness they were confronted by ‘hundreds of people’ holding phones up with lights on.

Police had sedimented expectations regarding Warlpiri tendencies towards violence, mangled understandings of the workings of ‘cultural payback’ and customary law, and a lack of genuine relationships outside the day-to-day administration of law and order. It is simply not possible for Warlpiri to be regarded as fully human, reasonable and governed by their own principles of decency and approaches to negotiation and conflict resolution through such a distorted prism. Structural conditions have delivered this devastating scenario of disengagement. Police could be forgiven for not knowing who to turn to; the community government council, the central interface between Warlpiri and the wider society, had been disbanded in 2008, its responsibilities outsourced to an Alice Springs-based ‘super shire’. In these circumstances it is unsurprising that the workings of Aboriginal customary law and especially ‘payback’ have been misidentified as acts of spontaneous, unpredictable, individualised revenge.

Customary law in its fullest sense establishes the workings of Aboriginal society; it establishes the principles of land ownership, relationships and responsibilities between people, and appropriate modes of conduct. It is anchored in ancestral inheritance, in Jukurrpa, the Dreaming. In its proper operation, any customary administration of punishment mobilises reciprocal kin-based responsibilities in a considered response. It identifies and sets out means for dealing with transgression. Evidence is heard from all sides; relevant context is taken into account. Responsibility is accepted not only by the perpetrator who agrees to submit to being sanctioned but also by that person’s extended family.

This structure of relations is mobilised in complex practices of dispute resolution and in the administering of care and the discipline of wayward youth. It establishes wide-ranging principles by which members of a society collectively maintain order. In short, when its legitimacy is established and acknowledged—as was the case through the earlier period in which ‘two laws’ were allowed some semblance of coexistence—customary law operates as a holistic and honourable system. Once a dispute is resolved, it is resolved with the agreement of all affected parties. Zachary Rolfe’s refusal to take any kind of responsibility whatsoever for his actions is an astonishing affront to such a system of honourable conflict resolution.

In the most recent shift in policies and Australian public attitude towards remote communities there has been a profound shrinkage of context such that enactments of customary law are in effect criminalised. The system as such is no longer recognised, no longer grasped as honourable. Such misrecognition is a key fault line along which a genuine openness to the other, which commences with the assumption of the other’s full and equal humanity, is reduced to fear and sedimented expectations.

Exposure

The pace of interrogation and scrutiny of witnesses and their evidence is at times torturous and repetitive, especially when it comes to ventilating toxic and racist text messages and eliciting responses from the large cast of police being hauled before the coroner. It is also at times mind-numbingly depressing to observe how little care or insight relatively senior police with decades of experience have into their own actions and spheres of responsibility, the looseness of their judgements around questions of the appropriateness or otherwise of use of force, and the unthinking casualness of their rejections of allegations of systematic racism. Many of these cops come across as worn out, emotionally deadened, disconnected and desensitised in their disregard for the Aboriginal people their work brings them into contact with.

The inquest has called witnesses who occupy polar ends of the spectrum of the Northern Territory police force. At the darkest end is the sergeant who agrees that working with Aboriginal people has affected him negatively; he has spent too many hours working as a POSI (a point of sale inspector deployed to the front line to enforce Alice Springs’ alcohol restrictions); he is worn down from dealing with drunken people. He rejects the suggestion that Aboriginal people are impoverished (‘it’s not poverty when your backyard is filled with green cans’); he does not know about the overcrowded conditions of Aboriginal community housing, nor about the history of colonisation; he is repulsed by the physical conditions of remote communities; he nearly did not get off the plane as it landed in the small Western Desert town where he was once deployed to work; he does not understand what is meant by trauma-informed policing; he rejects descriptions of his text messages as racist, saying they are ‘just words’. He was Zachary Rolfe’s superior but makes it clear that he was awed by Rolfe’s self-confidence and energy. Watching his lengthy, humiliating cross-examination is excruciating. The sergeant displays a palpable lack of self-esteem and is loose and lacking in composure in response to questions from counsel assisting regarding the fundamental responsibilities of his position as mentor, supervisor, leader.

Through the eyes of this and other police witnesses we glimpse the gruelling daily grind through which the normalisation of Aboriginal people as potential criminals is established and entrenched. Police are reluctant and begrudging participants in the inquest, and they make it clear that there is a world of distance between the anti-racist liberal legal frame of the coronial courtroom and the boots-on-the-ground urgent daily calls to which they must respond. But defiant attitudes are steadily chipped away at by a determined counsel assisting and dramatically thrown into relief in the emotional response of one constable, who had been close to Rolfe, to the public exposure of his offensive text messages. He is genuinely shaken, humiliated, contrite. He makes clear he is especially concerned for the impacts the publicity of these texts might have on close friendships he has since made with young men in an Aboriginal community to the north, as well as on his young son. He is demonstrably no longer the same person who composed those text messages.

At the other end of the spectrum is the highly considered, articulate and committed Arrernte senior constable who insists that policing is important and honourable work, that Alice Springs is a good place to be a cop, that the problems in Aboriginal communities are the outcome of decades of neglect and that responsibility for racism lies with national education, not policing culture per se. Other surprising, humanising moments cut through the stark separation of police from Aboriginal people, such as the revelation from Rolfe’s police partner that he enjoyed a decade-long ‘extremely meaningful’ friendship with a senior Ngarrindjeri man in Adelaide who schooled him in an obscure Aboriginal martial art. The same man was asked by one of the lawyers if he could contemplate what it was like to be a parent losing a child. Yes, he replied, I have intimate experience of that.

***

At the time of writing, Rolfe has been dismissed from his position with the Northern Territory police force and has a second appeal pending with the Supreme Court against his direction to testify before the coroner. Two final weeks of sittings have been scheduled for late July to hear Rolfe’s evidence, as well as that of Sergeant Leigh Bauwens, head of the now disbanded Immediate Response Team that was deployed to Yuendumu to secure Kumanjayi Walker’s arrest. If he is forced to appear, Rolfe’s actions thus far indicate that he will continue to be an uncooperative witness. So, with him already acquitted, what can the inquest achieve? The powers of the coroner are restricted to reporting and making recommendations. But the timing of this inquest, coinciding with the lead-up to the referendum on the Voice to Parliament and with heightened national attention to social unrest in Alice Springs, and further afield in the Northern Territory, increases the likelihood of its recommendations having some kind of political traction. The complex picture that emerges from this inquest, of techno-mediated hyper-policing, disempowered Aboriginal communities and pervasive distrust, runs in many directions and ultimately envelopes us all. It points to a need for an entirely new enabling ethos for Indigenous policy, an end to outsourcing as the default mechanism for service delivery in remote towns, and the comprehensive rebuilding of relationships and community-based institutions locally, regionally and nationally.

Three Shots

Melinda Hinkson, Thalia Anthony

Dec 2019

The death of Kumanjayi Walker—the Northern Territory as police state

About the author

Melinda Hinkson

Melinda Hinkson is a social anthropologist, executive director of the Institute of Postcolonial Studies and an Arena Publications Editor. In March 2023 she appeared as an expert witness for the Parumpurru (Justice) committee of Yuendumu at the coronial inquest into the death of Kumanjayi Walker.

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