Thirty years on, I sense the same storm brewing around Aboriginal deaths in custody | Pat Dodson

Thirty years on, I sense the same storm brewing around Aboriginal deaths in custody | Pat Dodson

The Guardian

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When I worked on the royal commission, distrust of police and prisons ran deep. The situation today is worse, and political resolve is lacking

When a 28-year-old Aboriginal man hanged himself in the Brewarrina police cells on 6 August 1987, his family and the Aboriginal community (at least half the population of the town) blamed foul play by the police, and violent protests erupted. For prime minister Bob Hawke, it was “the one death too many” that led to his establishing in October 1987 the royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody (RCIADIC). As Commissioner Hal Wootten QC would finally report, Aboriginal suspicions that the Brewarrina man was killed by police were “not unreasonable or unnatural”; such suspicions were “voiced all over Australia.”

I was the only non-lawyer on the royal commission (the other five commissioners were distinguished lawyers) and it was my job to inquire into why Aboriginal people were being taken into custody in Western Australia in the first place, and the factors that pertained to their deaths. Of the 99 deaths across the country between 1 January 1980 and 31 May 1989 that the commission examined, 32 (29 males, three females) occurred in Western Australia, where suspicion and distrust ran particularly deep between Aboriginal people and the agencies of police and prisons.

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