Dunghutti teenager Jai Wright died in the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital last Sunday night after he collided with an unmarked police car at an intersection in inner city Sydney’s South Eveleigh on Saturday 19 February.
NSW Police News reported the incident at 11 am that morning stating “a collision occurred between a police vehicle and a trail bike near the intersection of Henderson and Mitchell roads, Eveleigh, just after 7.30 am today”.
The Herald notes NSW police as having stated that at 7 am that morning, officers had sighted two suspected stolen vehicles – a black Mercedes and a blue 2019 Sherco trail bike – around the intersection of King Street and Enmore Road in Newtown. This was the bike Wright was riding.
On Saturday evening, Channel 7 reported “an alleged pursuit” and showed footage of a regular police vehicle with lights flashing followed by an unmarked police car travelling at high speed down a street.
Moments later the collision happened, the news report continues. Footage is then shown of another teen in police custody being placed in the back of a paddy wagon. This was the 16-year-old driver of the black Mercedes, who was later charged by police.
However, despite having reported the collision itself, the NSW Police Force has since denied there was one, as well as asserting there was no pursuit either. Indeed, two officers gave conflicting versions of events to the 16-year-old’s family on the same day.
The difference between the accounts is that one scenario is a death in custody, whilst the other is a mere road accident.
Jai’s father Lachlan Wright told NITV’s The Point this week that he was provided two versions of events relating to how his son came to sustain the critical head injuries that led to his death in the space of a few hours, and now he’s calling for a coronial inquest into his son’s death.
Wright explained that the first version was provided by the head of Redfern police at the RPA, just after his family had been made aware of the true extent of the injuries that Jai had sustained. Wright said, “I trusted him when he sat down in front of us.”
The head officer from Redfern outlined what he’d heard, which involved Jai riding the motorcycle down a bike lane on Henderson Road and the unmarked police car “was coming the other way, and turned in front of him, and Jai’s bike collided with the police car”.
“Later on that day, they sent what they call an independent investigator,” Wright continued. “Through his briefing they gave a different set of events. He said Jai was riding down the bike lane, and, like the other police officer, he said an unmarked police car was coming the other way”.
But this is where the story changes. The “independent investigator” told Wright that the unmarked police car was then parked behind an Uber, and his son had lost control over a bump “and basically went airborne into the car”.
Jai’s father maintains the second version “doesn’t match up”. He added that as his son had died whilst being pursued by police, he believes it is a death in custody. And while Wright has further asked for the footage of the event, which does exist, the police have been denied access to it.
Reasons to backtrack on initial version
Recommendation 6 of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody provides the definition of what is an official custodial death.
This includes death in the custody of police, corrections or juvenile detention, death caused by traumatic injuries or lack of proper care in such custody, a fatal injury caused whilst police or corrections officers attempt to detain a person, or a fatal injury resulting from attempting to escape from all these forms of custody.
The eleventh recommendation of the commission was that “all deaths in custody be required by law to be the subject of a coronial inquiry which culminates in a formal inquest conducted by a coroner into the circumstances of the death”.
If NSW police had been in pursuit of the two vehicles spotted at the well-known Newtown intersection, and Jai had been attempting to escape when he collided with an unmarked police car this would likely be classed as a death in custody.
But the police have distanced themselves from a direct collision, as well as from any pursuit.
So, if the second version of events holds, NSW police will be investigated by its own Professional Standards Command, which will be independently overseen by the Law Enforcement Conduct Commission (LECC) and hence, avoid the greater scrutiny of an official coronial inquiry.
A stark comparison
Another reason why the NSW Police Force might be trying to avoid Jai Wright’s death from being classed as a death in custody, is that it happened just days after the 18th anniversary of the highly controversial and still unresolved custodial death of TJ Hickey.
Gamilaraay teen Hickey died after being impaled upon a fence in Redfern whilst he was riding his bicycle and being pursued by two police vans on 14 February 2004. This incident occurred just 750 metres away from Wright’s collision with a police car.
The officer driving the main pursuit vehicle in 2004 was NSW police constable Michael Hollingsworth. He removed Hickey from the fence prior to the paramedics arriving at the scene. And during the inquest, he was permitted not to testify on the ground that he might incriminate himself.
The Hickey incident sparked riots in the streets of Redfern. And two decades later, many questions remain unanswered about how the 17-year-old came to meet his fate, while his family continues to press for the investigation into his death to be reopened.
Aboriginal deaths in custody were such an issue half a century ago that the royal commission was established. It delivered 339 recommendations in 1991 that would clearly improve the situation, but the majority remain unimplemented.
Since it handed down its final report, at least 492 First Nations deaths in custody have occurred. And over the last 12 months, which marked the 30th anniversary of the report’s release, the number of Aboriginal custodial deaths that have been occurring has risen dramatically.
Jai Wright is dead. NSW police have provided two versions of how he came to die, and it has denied a pursuit. But officers did manage to capture and charge the other 16-year-old. And the unmarked police car just happened to be in the same vicinity as a boy driving a stolen trail bike.