A push by South Australia’s police union to change the definition of a death in custody has been criticised by Aboriginal rights advocates, who say it would only “benefit police”.
- The Police Association has written a letter calling for changes to the definition of deaths in custody
- Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement chief Cheryl Axleby said more accountability was needed
- There were 32 Indigenous deaths in custody in South Australia between 1991 and 2016
The Police Association of South Australia says the legal definition of deaths in custody should be revised because police are only involved in “very few”.
However, the Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement (ALRM) has hit back at that suggestion, saying it is misguided and would lead to weakened accountability.
The dispute comes after SA Police confirmed an internal investigation is underway into the arrest of 28-year-old Aboriginal man Noel Henry at Kilburn on Monday night.
Videos posted to social media after the arrest show an SA Police officer repeatedly striking Mr Henry, who is being held on the ground against a fence.
The investigation also follows Black Lives Matter rallies held across the country this month and comes amid renewed focus on the issue of Aboriginal deaths in custody.
“I think that any time police are involved in a situation with a member of the public … we need to also still continue to look at why there was police engagement in the first place,” ALRM chief executive Cheryl Axleby said.
“Any intervention with the police, or in the prison system — everything needs to be looked at.
But Police Association president Mark Carroll said that, in many cases, law enforcement officers could not be blamed for deaths in custody.
The suggestion to change the definition was made in a letter from the Police Association to the Police Commissioner, with copies also circulated to politicians.
“A lot of those deaths in custody, as sad as they are, are through natural causes, suicide or violence between prisoners,” Mr Carroll told ABC Radio Adelaide this morning.
“When you break those numbers down, it gives a far different picture about police deaths in custody which are very few, they are very tragic and they’re very sad.
“A lot of them happen when flee from police … we have a death in custody where a man was trying to evade police, jumped into a river, police tried to save the drowning man.”
Mr Carroll said the current definition would extend to people involved in fatal car crashes while trying to avoid arrest.
The association’s letter also recommends introducing weekend court sittings, 24-hour nursing staff at custodial facilities and improvements to the Aboriginal Visitor Scheme.
Opposition rejects ‘deviating from definition’
Data released by the Australian Institute of Criminology showed there were 32 Indigenous deaths in custody in South Australia between 1991 and 2016.
That number accounted for 18 per cent of all deaths in custody during that time — the third highest rate in the nation, behind the Northern Territory and Western Australia.
Opposition Aboriginal Affairs spokesman Kyam Maher also disagreed with the Police Association’s idea.
He said the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, handed down in 1991, dealt with sentence prisoners as well as people on remand, under arrest and in the process of being arrested.
“But to keep comparing oranges with oranges and to have valid comparisons, I’m not in favour of deviating from the definition.”
The 1991 royal commission aimed to report on the underlying issues behind deaths in custody and made more than 300 recommendations.
Since its release, there have been more than 430 recorded Indigenous deaths in custody across Australia.