BY AMY MCQUIRE, JULY 25, 2012
Originally published in Tracker Magazine.
Patricia Morton-Thomas, the aunt of Kwementyaye Briscoe, who died aged 27 in police custody on January 5 (AAP IMAGE/XAVIER LA CANNA).
NORTHERN TERRITORY:Kwementyaye Briscoe’s aunty Patricia Morton-Thomas doesn’t know what the word ‘justice’ is supposed to mean.
She’s been asked countless times whether her family will ever see it following the death of the 27-year-old Anmatyere man, who passed away on the floor of an Alice Springs watch house earlier this year.
“I honestly don’t understand what (justice) means. The average person on the ground has a completely different idea of what justice is to our legal system.” Ms Morton-Thomas told Tracker.
It may be a little bit longer until Ms Morton-Thomas finds out if these definitions are mutually exclusive, as the family waits on Coroner Greg Cavanagh to deliver his findings.
The inquest into the death of Mr Briscoe wrapped up this month.
It shed a little light on the circumstances leading to his death, including the negligence shown by NT police officers.
Mr Briscoe had been subjected to “shocking” treatment by police officers, according to counsel assisting the Coroner Peggy Dwyer.
“(He was) manhandled in a way that was somewhat excessive,” Ms Dwyer said in her closing submissions.
On January 4, Alice Springs police took Mr Briscoe into “protective custody” for public drunkenness.
It was the 32nd time this had happened.
The inquest heard that a 750 ml bottle of rum had been smuggled into the back of the paddy wagon and shared amongst his companions. Mr Briscoe had consumed about half of the bottle.
According to crikey.com.au’s Bob Gosford “this half bottle of ‘hot-stuff’ may have added up to 0.23 percent of Kwementyaye’s 0.375 percent blood alcohol content – a level that would have most of us unconscious or close to death”.
Mr Briscoe was found dead in a cell just before 2 am the following morning.
While forensic pathologist Terence Sinton determined Mr Briscoe’s cause of death was due to acute alcohol toxicity at autopsy, another professor Johan Duflou said there was potentially another cause of death – airway obstruction due either to alcohol or positional asphyxiation, the Australian newspaper reported.
It emerged during the inquest that police had made a series of fatal errors after arresting Mr Briscoe, including admitting him to the watch house when he was unable to answer basic health questions, dragging him across the watch house floor and ignoring calls from prisoners who were concerned about his wellbeing.
One of the most shocking aspects of the inquest was the CCTV footage that captured Mr Briscoe’s last hours. The footage was later aired in the media.
One part depicts an intoxicated Mr Briscoe being slammed against the reception desk by Constable Gareth Evans, who had told the inquest Mr Briscoe had become uncooperative and argumentative.
Police then carried Mr Briscoe to a cell and placed him face first on a vinyl mattress.
The footage later shows police cleaning blood off the watch house floor. At that point, Mr Briscoe had a fresh cut over his left eyebrow.
Prisoners tried repeatedly to get attention for Mr Briscoe by using alarm buttons.
One officer – Probationary Constable David O’Keefe – admitted to the inquest he had not made regular checks like he was instructed to, and instead surfed the Internet and listened to his iPod.
Constable O’Keefe told the inquest he had ignored the concerns of Mr Briscoe’s fellow prisoners because he was “distracted”, “lazy” and “tired”, according to crikey.com.au.
Police, including Constable Evans and Constable O’Keefe, have since extended their apologies to Mr Briscoe’s family and friends, stating that they had failed in their duty of care.
Police also told the inquest that several recommendations made by Coroner Greg Cavanagh following another death in custody at the watch house had been implemented, and then abandoned.
Assistant Commissioner Mark Payne said that there had been changes since Mr Briscoe’s death, stating there was more rigorous training for officers, posters about prisoner care for officers and a nurse on duty to attend to prisoners.
And the NT Police Association’s submission to the inquest raised concerns about alcohol laws in the Northern Territory, stating police had to deal with the fall out of government failure over alcohol abuse.
The submission labelled the work of police as “mind-numbing, de-sensitising and soul destroying….”
“Despite the good intentions of people there’s a… feeling of futility developing around the whole issue and one of the real problems that again we have tried to highlight now in our submission to the coroner is that this type of work where police are locking up drunk people every day, day-in day-out, every shift, does de-sensitise the police to the misery that they’re actually immersed in.
“I think more concerning now is that feeling seems to be spreading to the wider community, that this problem is simply intractable and insoluble,” association president Vince Kelly told the ABC.
Ms Morton Thomas told Tracker she personally accepted police apologies and says although they must be held accountable, her nephew’s death is indicative of deeper neglect.
She believes the Northern Territory intervention has only compounded the problems afflicting Indigenous people in the Central Australian town.
“It took a great deal of courage for those particular officers to come directly to the family rather than go through the court systems, to face us and apologise for their lack of action,” Ms Morton-Thomas told Tracker.
“I can’t speak for my entire family, I can only speak for me. But in this instance, I was grateful for that.
“It’s the entire system.
“It’s something the intervention has bred. This was already an underlying (hostility) in Alice Springs, this attitude towards Aboriginal people, but the intervention has just opened the door for any person with the slightest bit of bigotry to behave however they want.
“…The government needs to look at the statistics. They need to look at the statistics they’ve gathered themselves that show this intervention is not working, but they went and passed it for another 10 years anyway.
“My nephew was a victim of this intervention, he truly was.
“We’ve had an apology from the NT police commissioner. But one day (Indigenous affairs minister) Jenny Macklin will have to stand up and apologise.”
Earlier this month, a rally seeking justice for Mr Briscoe called for charges to be laid on the officer in the video – Constable Evans – over his handling of Mr Briscoe.
Ms Morton-Thomas says that police should be held accountable.
“I support anybody who calls for the police force to be held accountable.
“This is not particularly about Constable Evans. I am disgusted with Evans, but this is about the police being held accountable for their actions. If they’ve got a badge, they’re the ones charged with upholding the law in our communities.
“But that shouldn’t mean they aren’t subject to the law.”
Ms Morton-Thomas says regardless of what the coroner delivers, she will never forget.
“It’s very surreal for me. That footage will always be with me. That was the last hours of my nephew’s life, and as horrific as it is, I still hear him crying every night. I see him lying on the floor. I see that all the time.
“…It’s like we can still hear it, the footage of him lying on the floor, the footage of him crying. The way he was abandoned and treated.
“It’s so heartbreaking. That is always burned in my mind.”
– with AAP