One of Australia’s longest-serving former police commissioners believes the shooting of Indigenous man Kumanjayi Walker in a remote Northern Territory community could have widespread consequences for the future of policing.
- 19-year-old Warlpiri man Kumanjayi Walker died after being shot by an NT Police officer last month
- A former commissioner says the decision to charge the constable with murder had left officers feeling unsupported
- Dr O’Callaghan also expressed sadness at the low number of Aboriginal people involved in law enforcement
Western Australia’s ex-police commissioner Karl O’Callaghan said officers felt unsupported after Constable Zachary Rolfe was charged with murder and many will be watching the outcome of the case “very closely”.
Dr O’Callaghan also expressed sadness at the low number of Aboriginal people involved in law enforcement and the failed efforts to recruit them.
The comments come amid fresh scrutiny on policing strategies in isolated townships and the relationship between Indigenous people and the law.
Too risky for officers
As the state’s highest-ranking officer for 13 years, Dr O’Callaghan has extensive experience in overseeing policing strategies in some of the most isolated places on earth.
He said the decision to charge Mr Rolfe with murder over the shooting sent ripples of dismay through the policing fraternity.
“I think [officers] feel they are not supported,” he said.
“[Officers] go out and do their job, something happens in a split second and they end up getting charged with a very serious offence.
Tensions between Aboriginal people and police have risen in the NT and WA after Kumanjayi Walker’s shooting. (ABC News: Katrina Beavan)
“I think police in Western Australia and the Northern Territory will be very, very concerned about what this means for trying to support those Aboriginal communities.”
He said the case had the potential to change the way officers approached policing in these places — and not necessarily for the better.
“The outcome of this will be watched very closely all over Australia,” he said.
“It will have an impact on the best of our police officers, on their decision to go to those communities.
“It will be a bad thing if police officers who are qualified and very skilled at their work decide that they don’t want to go there because of this risk.”
Efforts are underway to repair the relationship that has been badly damaged by Kumanjayi Walker’s death. (ABC News: Jacqueline Breen)
In the aftermath of the shooting, a sharp rise in tensions between police and Aboriginal community residents has been identified on both sides of the border.
Efforts are now underway to repair the relationship that has been badly damaged by the recent events.
In Western Australia, where many of Mr Walker’s relatives live, the Yawuru man in charge of the newly established Aboriginal Affairs Division prioritised engagement with local people.
“Strong, meaningful engagement with community and the police have to demonstrate a consistent standard of service,” Superintendent Brian Wilkinson said.
“Whilst there is no doubt the tragic events in Yuendumu has heightened tensions, officers around the state continue to build strong relationships with Aboriginal people by paying our respects, offering our condolences and showing our support.”
There have been calls for a ban on police using firearms in communities like Yuendumu.
Dr O’Callaghan said it could be an opportunity to review firearms protocols.
“It may be time to revisit some of the training, [such as] when police might wear firearms in those communities,” he said.
Policing in the far-flung regional centres of Western Australia and the Northern Territory has long presented a logistical and cultural challenge for officers.
A handful of staff are often responsible for between several hundred to 1,000 residents.
Small communities can be easily inundated by visitors who travel thousands of kilometres, many from interstate, to attend family commitments.
In addition to layers of complex social problems, there are language and cultural barriers to navigate, and support is usually hours away.
Law enforcement in these conditions requires a unique approach, according to Dr O’Callaghan, because officers, “are trying to deal with a lot of complex social issues”.
“It can have an enormous impact on a police officer because of the complexity of what they’re dealing with and I think even the best-prepared officers are not prepared or trained to deal with what they find in those communities,” he said.
More efforts are being made to recruit Aboriginal people into the WA Police Force. (ABC Kimberley: Andrew Seabourne)
More improvements needed
After the Gordon Inquiry in 2002, efforts were made to improve remote policing across the country, like the introduction of multi-functional facilities to ensure officers and government departments were working side-by-side.
There are four Indigenous Police Liaison Officers in WA and an Aboriginal Police cadet program that has received 39 participants.
But Superintendent Wilkinson said there was a push for greater participation.
“There is a strong desire to increase the numbers of Aboriginal people within the WA Police Force,” he said.
“A very proven method of employment has been our Aboriginal Police cadet program.”
Dr O’Callaghan welcomed moves to have Aboriginal people play a bigger role in enforcing the law.
“We could do a lot better in Western Australia and perhaps the Northern Territory by employing more local people who have a good understanding of local culture but it has proved difficult,” he said.
“That’s the challenge for both the communities and police and government to try and work through.”