Death in Custody: A “White, Middle Class Person” Would Have Been Treated Differently

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Black male in custody

A former police officer who was shift supervisor at the time 22-year-old woman Ms Dhu died in police custody has given his evidence to the WA Coroner during the inquest into her death, admitting he thought the dying woman was affected by drugs.

Ms Dhu died in August 2014 at South Hedland police station, where she was detained for two days over non-payment of fines totalling $3,622.

Police took Ms Dhu to the Hedland Health Campus three times during her time in custody after she reported feeling unwell.

Counsel assisting the coroner, Ilona O’Brien, said doctors diagnosed Ms Dhu during her first two visits as having “behavioural issues” and discharged her back into police custody. By her second visit, the young woman was only hours away from death.

A post-mortem examination revealed Ms Dhu died from septicaemia and pneumonia caused by an infection from a broken rib.

The inquest later heard from nurse Caroline Jones that police officers told hospital staff she “was faking it” before Ms Dhu went into cardiac arrest and died.

Rick Bond was the supervising sergeant on duty when Ms Dhu died. He resigned from the police force for family reasons last year.

Mr Bond has given his own evidence after senior constable Shelly Burgess told the inquest on Monday that Mr Bond had whispered to Ms Dhu: “you’re a f****** junkie, you will sit this out”.

Senior constable Burgess admitted that she was unprofessional and acted inhumanely in her treatment of Ms Dhu.

Mr Bond told the inquest he may have said to other officers that Ms Dhu was a junkie, but denied saying it to Ms Dhu herself.

Mr Bond admitted he thought Ms Dhu was faking her medical complaints.

“I believed … it was a reason, or a ploy, to get out of the cells. It was certainly in the back of my mind,” he said.

The inquest has heard alarming evidence about Ms Dhu’s treatment from various police officers leading up to her death.

Ms Dhu’s partner, Dion Ruffin, testified via video link from Greenough Regional Prison.

Mr Ruffin was in an adjacent cell after being arrested over an unrelated matter. He said he could hear Ms Dhu crying out in pain.

On the day she died, Mr Ruffin said Ms Dhu was choking on her own vomit. He said four officers came to her cell and laughed at her before he heard a “loud bang” and Ms Dhu’s cries for help ended.

Aboriginal Deaths in Custody

Like many who die in police custody, Ms Dhu was Aboriginal. The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody concluded that: “Aboriginal people in custody are more likely to die than others in custody because the Aboriginal population is grossly over-represented in custody.”

George Newhouse, the lawyer representing the WA Deaths in Custody Watch Committee at the coronial inquiry addressed the media outside court. He believes the government has failed to implement the recommendations of the Royal Commission.

“Now those recommendations were made over 25 years ago, and if they had been implemented in WA, it’s quite likely Ms Dhu would not have passed away,” he said.

Prison for Outstanding Fines

In WA, people can opt to spend a day in prison for every $250 worth of unpaid fines.

The New Matilda has slammed this law, arguing it “clearly targets the poor, has resulted in increased numbers of Aboriginal people in custody, and sadly, entrenches jail time as a social norm within Aboriginal communities”.

Lawyer Ruth Barson says about 1000 people are imprisoned every year due to unpaid fines.

Ms Barson told the ABC, “Miss Dhu was a young woman without any money in a domestic violence situation. She was locked up because she had not paid her fines.”

“Even though Miss Dhu tragically died over 12 months ago, the Western Australian Government is yet to change the laws that allowed such a vulnerable young woman to be locked up … Western Australia urgently needs a fair and a flexible fines system like that in New South Wales which differentiates between those who will not and those who cannot pay their fines.”

Sandra Thompson, an expert in rural and Indigenous health, told the inquest that “institutional racism” was a potential factor in Ms Dhu’s death and that the medical notes available lacked detail and history.

Ms Thompson testified that Ms Dhu’s treatment would likely have been different if she were a “white, middle-class person”.

Ms Dhu’s family says she was a vulnerable woman, suffering due to domestic violence and in need of protection from police.

“They shouldn’t have treated anyone like that, they left her there like a dog, to die,” her father said.

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