Leanne Liddle, Director of the Aboriginal Justice Unit and the Northern Territory’s nominee for Australian of the Year, says police must apply laws equally.
It was recently made public that in 2020 her father was questioned by police liquor inspectors while buying mid-strength beer in Alice Springs.
In June that year Mr Liddle, then 76, launched a discrimination complaint against NT Police over his treatment by an officer at the bottle-shop.
The matter has now been settled confidentially out of court. In a statement, Mr Liddle said police commented “that’s a lot of beer” and asked “Have you got something to hide?”
“I spoke to senior police shortly after dad rang me after he had walked out of the store, and I told them to give dad a call,” Ms Liddle said.
“They rang me back and they had the audacity to say ‘we ask people those questions from all walks of life and about the secondary supply of alcohol.’
“But that’s just it – they didn’t ask everyone else these questions who were in the store buying alcohol.”
Ms Liddle, who was South Australia’s first Indigenous woman police officer, said she always understood that the role comes with “power and privilege.”
“You must not abuse it [your power] and it is important that you understand your role.”
“During consultations for the NT Aboriginal Justice Agreement, people said to us – on the surface this law and the questioning doesn’t look like it is discriminatory but the application in practice is clearly targeting us as Aboriginal people.
“We were told that people wanted us to ensure that officers’ bias does not go unchecked,” she said.
The lifelong campaigner for justice said her father had been “a pensioner looking for a bargain” buying low-alcohol beer.
“Alice Springs, Katherine and Tennant Creek have police liquor inspectors outside liquor outlets. They can be auxiliaries, trained for only 10 weeks.
“There were over a dozen people that walked in and out of that shop and all they got was a cursory glance at their licence and none of them were questioned to the same extent as dad, and certainly not at the front counter in front of the other customers and staff.
“But the police said when I complained ‘we were polite, we’ve done nothing wrong’.
“When we originally put in the complaint the Ombudsman office decided it should be seen by the NT Anti-Discrimination Commission.
“In the NT there is a six month statute of limitations for cases against police officers that incur disciplinary action. Because [the Commission] took so long, it was too late for any disciplinary action to be taken against the police.
“To my knowledge no other profession has a time limit in which to lay complaints that may incur actions,” she said.
Ms Liddle noted that restrictions on who could access footage from the body-worn cameras on police officers under the Surveillance Act (NT) made it harder to hold officers to account for their actions.
“My dad said he just wanted to get his beer and go home, and then he told them this amount of alcohol will last him three weeks – it was two carry packs of 24 mid-strength beers.
“There were other customers in the store who bought much more than him – some had a bottle of rum, and another had two cartons and two bottles of wine. No one but him got questioned like that.
“In the CCTV footage, it appears these customers were non-Indigenous.
“Under the Liquor Act (NT), police can ask you questions within 20 metres of the store.
“Sadly, no matter how ridiculous it sounds, you legally could be next door in a hair dresser’s shop and they could question you about the booze you bought: ‘where are you going to drink it? Who will you share it with?’.”
Ms Liddle told the National Indigenous Times, she had lodged other informal complaints after being racially profiled herself a number of times before the incident involving her father.
She encouraged Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the Territory who experience racial profiling to lodge complaints with the ADC.
“When we did consultation for the Justice Agreement many people said ‘that liquor law is targeted at us’.”
Ms Liddle said that police officers should be qualified to do their job well.
“There needs to be accountability. The justice agreement is reviewing areas of reform… we will be looking at this over the seven year timeframe of the Agreement.
“But how many people does this happen to but they don’t have a daughter who is a lawyer and can navigate through the legal system someone who understands the system?
“There was no level of compassion about the hurt, humiliation and indignity they caused my elderly and well respected father.
“That’s what hurt most… Dad would have been satisfied with an apology there and then, instead, he feels degraded and he has not bought alcohol since – in two years”.
Ms Liddle said she was certain being outspoken would draw a backlash but “you can’t ignore these events”.
She said the public response to reporting of how her father was treated was heartening, with many people showing sympathy and “recognising what Aboriginal people face”.
“I do worry about people who have been in the same position as my dad but they don’t know what to do… but the Justice Agreement will deal with making justice services accessible to Aboriginal people and it will look at legislation that is found to be unfair, discriminatory or detrimental to Indigenous people.”
By Giovanni Torre