BY AMY MCQUIRE, APRIL 4, 2011
Originally published in Tracker Magazine.
In January this year, Mr Phillips was found dead in a police cell. Mobile phone footage has since emerged showing the disabled Aboriginal man being brutally assaulted by a local teenager.
WESTERN AUSTRALIA, April 2011: IN FEBRUARY, an horrendous piece of mobile phone footage was uploaded to Facebook. The grainy video shows a middle-aged Aboriginal man in St Barbara Square, Kalgoorlie.
His hand is wrapped in a bandage as a white youth begins to spar with him, knocking him to the ground, and kicking him the head as he lays on the cement.
After the video was found by a friend of the victim’s family, he was quickly identified as 51-year-old Mr Phillips.
The reason we can’t publish his first name is because Mr Phillips was taken into custody in a Kalgoorlie prison cell on January 7 this year and died the next morning on the watchhouse floor, the latest death in custody to blemish a West Australian jail system that incarcerates Indigenous people at the highest rate on earth.
Mr Phillips is more than just another statistic to his community. He was a well-known character in the Goldfields area, recognised for his artistry and good humour.
Mr Phillips was raised in the Goldfields. His family are from the Mt Margaret mission, near Laverton, but he travelled widely throughout the state.
“His nickname was dynamite,” his uncle Kado Muir told Tracker. “He was always on the go.
“He generally moved between being a fringe dweller living on the outskirts of town, and his tribal background. He grew up in the Goldfields, moving between Laverton, Leonard and Kalgoorlie.”
Another uncle, Aboriginal Pastor Geoffrey Stokes, said Mr Phillips was a happy-go-lucky man.
“He was everybody’s friend, everybody’s mate,” Mr Stokes said. “He was a family man. He didn’t have children but he had a lot of nephews and nieces, and the family around him.”
Two hundred people from across Australia gathered at his funeral to honour a man whose memory will always be tainted by the tragic circumstances in which he died. But relatives say it will never completely overshadow the man he was. The testimony of his character has been consistent by those who knew him. He was jovial, mischievous, and always ready for a chat.
Mr Phillips was also disabled. He had lost the use of one arm, and had suffered severe burns.
He had also come to the notice of police, but his lawyer, Brendon Slattery, has told media he wasn’t regard as a major criminal concern.
Last year he was arrested for breaching bail conditions, and spent a night in lock-up. He was released without charge the next day. A lawyer had determined he did not have any bail conditions.
Relatives say that like many Aboriginal men, he was frustrated with being targeted by police.
On January 7 this year Mr Phillips was arrested near a Woolworths complex in the mining town.
Police say he was charged with disorderly conduct, assault and failing to obey a move-on order. Beyond that, little is known about the circumstances of his arrest.
The next day, around 3:30 am, Mr Phillips died in his cell.
Very little is known publicly about the circumstances of his death. There was another Aboriginal man in the cell who claims Mr Phillips’ had a fit.
The man is a relative of Pastor Stokes.
“My nephew was saying he knew that a fit was coming on, he was singing out to the cops and watching (Mr Phillips). He was knocking on the wall telling the cops to come and get him,” Pastor Stokes said.
Marc Newhouse from the Deaths in Custody Watch WA, backs this claim.
“The young Aboriginal man (detained with Mr Phillips) tells us that the deceased tried (unsuccessfully) to get the attention of an officer who was on duty at the time in the watchhouse, to give him assistance.”
Inspector Peter Foley from Kalgoorlie Police told ABC News that Mr Phillips received appropriate medical assistance from those on duty.
“St John Ambulance were called and unfortunately on this occasion this person was pronounced deceased in the cells,” Inspector Foley said.
“Our officers on duty provided first aid and resuscitation without hesitation, and as a result I’m very happy with their actions on the night.
“St John Ambulance were called immediately.”
No official cause of death has been released, and West Australian Police refused to respond directly to a long list of questions submitted by Tracker.
They said no comment would be made because the mater was now the subject of an internal investigation and a coronial inquest.
Three months on Mr Phillip’s death is shrouded in mystery.
“He had an ongoing problem with alcohol – first up you would think he would have gotten medical attention,” Mr Newhouse told Tracker.
“He was known to police. You would think straight away this person is at risk in custody in terms of his health.
“Straight up, whether he was intoxicated or not, he should have been classified as a high risk. In the Royal Commission there was a whole raft of recommendations related to his situation.”
Pastor Stokes says police have not met the standard expected of them.
“They should have got a doctor to check him. If you are in a prison, the people in charge of the prison are responsible for the prisoner,” he said.
“They failed in their duty of care.”
The circumstances of Mr Phillip’s arrest have also outraged many in the community.
Mr Muir said that the move on orders would never be used to target non-Aboriginal people in the way they are used against the Aboriginal community.
“The real problem that faces most Aboriginal men on a regular basis is that they are entirely vulnerable in the custody of the state,” he added.
“A lot of Aboriginal men are basically sentenced for custody, and they are given a death sentence,” he says.
“The move on order, that in itself is ridiculous. To be given a move on order, and end up in custody and die?
“There are a lot of whitefellas who are from a low socio-economic background who suffer similar stuff that Aboriginal people suffer.
“But they wouldn’t be sentenced in the same way Aboriginal people are sentenced.”
And there have been even more questions surrounding the video showing Mr Phillips’ assault.
Mr Phillips’ sister Adele appeared on WIN news when the video was made public in February.
“They think its good fun fighting and putting it on phones, and Youtube… but my brother was crippled, he was just a crippled bloke,” Ms Phillips told the interviewer.
The family believe that the assault occurred on the same day Mr Phillips was arrested, because he was wearing the same clothes. Mr Newhouse has alleged police were aware Mr Phillips had been the victim of an assault.
“But they didn’t take it seriously until the day of the funeral when the footage was shown and the Death in Custody Watch Committee did interviews with the media,” he said. “All charges should be levelled against the person who assaulted him, and also those who filmed it and put it on Facebook.”
Mr Newhouse said the alleged assailant is known to police, and has been interviewed as a person of interest.
or now, the Phillips’ family know they must place all their faith in the police investigation. But they say there’s very little hope to be found.
“Usually when there is a death in custody an internal investigation is launched and it is put to the Coroner, and the Crime and Corruption Commission oversees,” Mr Newhouse added.
“The community and the family do not have confidence in the police conducting this investigation. It raises the whole issue of police investigating police, which we have long called to be stopped.
“There have been many examples where evidence has been corrupted and compromised.”
Mr Muir said the ultimate responsibility rested with government.
“We had the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, but in actual fact, we are not seeing much improvement.
“Deaths in custody have gone up since the royal commission.
“We as a community have taken responsibility every inch of the way, but we’ve been hamstrung by ineffective government, by a lack of resources and support to help find solutions to our problems.
“How can we have another death in custody a year or two later (after Mr Ward)?
“These are avoidable.
“I think making individual people liable might be the way to go.
“But at the end of the day, responsibility ends with politicians.
“They need to be held liable over these deaths.”