Please note: This story contains reference to someone who has died.
The families of two Aboriginal boys who drowned in the Swan River while being pursued by police have filed writs in the District Court for civil action against the State of Western Australia.
On Wednesday, the state’s Coroner ruled that the officers who pursued four Aboriginal boys into the river in September 2018 had acted “appropriately”.
The findings included three recommendations that advocates have condemned as “mediocre” and “very weak”.
Coroner Philip Urquhart said that “given the weather conditions and the width of the river, this was a dangerous and very risky undertaking to attempt” but acknowledged the teenagers, referred to as Master Drage (aged 16) and Master Simpson (aged 17), would not have been aware of the dangerous conditions of the river before they attempted to swim across it.
The report comes after a coronial inquest into the deaths of the boys in March this year.
Earlier in the proceedings one of the four boys, referred to as P, had told the court they had gotten into the river as the “only way” to get away from the officers chasing them, but he turned back after getting 30 to 40 metres from shore.
P, who was 17 at the time, said uniformed police officers called on him to go back to the river bank and he replied, “I’m not going anywhere”.
He said he then asked police to help the others, who he described as his “brothers”, because he believed they were drowning.
He said the police did nothing, and when shown footage of a Tactical Response Group officer could be seen swimming out and responded, “he could’ve got in sooner”.
P described his friends as “fit boys” who knew how to swim, and said he believed police “could’ve done more” to help them.
Winnie Hayward, the mother of Christopher Drage, told the National Indigenous Times that lawyer Dana Levitt, who is representing both families, and Megan Krakouer from the National Suicide Prevention and Trauma Recovery Project could speak on their behalf.
Ms Levitt said the case highlighted the fact “you can not distinguish any moment in an Indigenous person’s life from the outcome that ended up happening”.
“In the case of these boys, that is a lifetime of really bad encounters with police. Christopher Drage had been in Banksia Hill 11 times. It is a pretty serious decision to make to jump into the Swan River on a day like that.
“Any Indigenous person’s encounters with authority in Western Australia are probably pretty negative.”
“What is unique with Winnie and Shelly’s [the mother of Trisjack Simpson] position is that generally speaking the coroner report is the end of the line.”
She said the firm had already filed writs in the District Court on behalf of each family member for a personal injury claim for nervous shock.
“There are nine writs in total. Shelly was standing on the river bank when they pulled a body out of the river. She did not know if it was her son or not. We will look at the impact that this tragedy has had on each family member.
“What is important is that it forces people to understand that you don’t just file dead people under miscellaneous when you get a coroner’s report. The impact of these events is never ending, for the families and for the community.
“Neither Winnie or Shelly were alerted that the coroner’s report was going to be released publicly. Winnie found hers in her mailbox soaking wet. Where is the compassion?”
Ms Levitt said the three recommendations are “gobsmacking”.
“Why would you let two inexperienced officers go out together, not knowing the area, without sufficient understanding of the cultural aspect of interactions between police and Indigenous youth, and without being able to swim to the extent that were prepared to do something to help those boys?
“In Western Australia police used to have to do a bronze medallion in swimming – but not anymore,” she said.
One of the officers who pursued the teenagers was still on probation and the other had finished their probationary period just five months earlier.
“There was a significant lapse from the moment the boys entered the river to the time the Tactical Response Group officer swam in,” Ms Levitt said.
Ms Krakouer said the outcome of the case is “woeful, and indicative of the dismal state of affairs currently in Western Australia”.
“The three recommendations are mediocre; they are very weak. This inquest did not give closure for the families, and it did not give accountability,” she said
“The recommendations in this case – they are meaningless. They talk about cultural awareness … They talk about landmarks, so police get their bearings – that should be done in the first week of training.”
“Everyone knows where the Swan River is. They talk about pairing experienced cops with young cops, that should have been the case from the beginning.
“Cultural awareness, that’s been around for decades. What difference has it made? They keep investing in the wrong places. We need mass investment in keeping people out of the system.”
Ms Krakouer said it was a clear case of racial profiling.
“Winnie Hayward said they should have stopped chasing them, and now she is without her son. Same as Shelly. Both families are heartbroken.
“There needs to be an inquiry in terms of the Coroners Act. We have many families going through the coronial process. It takes about two or three years to get to that point, then they get recommendations that are often not implemented, and for many families that’s the end of the line, unless they have resources and someone representing them to take it further.
“The officers can sit in on other officers giving evidence. Two young men gave evidence, one from Banksia Hill, it was soul-destroying, the second from Hakea. But the police, they sat in on the evidence of each other.
“Winne is devastated. She is hurt by it, she asked ‘is that all my son is worth? Three recommendations?'”
Dr Hannah McGlade, lawyer, legal academic and human rights activists, told the National Indigenous Times that there needs to be “accountability, not cultural awareness training”.
“We are very concerned about the Coroners Court and how they investigate Aboriginal Deaths In Custody and it seems there is a bias towards police. The issue of racial profiling and racial violence is not being considered,” she said.
“There are no Aboriginal Coroners or even Aboriginal staff in the coroner’s office. It is culturally unsafe; people feel traumatised by the process.”
“We want the coroner’s court to be reformed consistent with the modern world. Look at the Koori Engagement Unit in the Coroners Court of Victoria, which was established following the shocking death of Ms Day.
“In that case, the Victorian coroners court recognised the systemic racism in the police – for the first time. (Ms Day died after sustaining a serious head injury in a police cell on 22 December 2017.)
“In the case of Ms Dhu, it was frustrating and wrong that the coroner, although she found police and medical staff had been inhumane, she did not address the issue of racism.
“In the case of Chad Riley, who was tasered 16 times and killed, police were listening to each other’s evidence, and basically high-fived each other outside court after they were let off… You can clearly see in the video the police endangered him, just piling on top of him… They said he reached for an officer’s gun – there were no fingerprints on the belt.”
By Giovanni Torre