The Coronial Inquest into Ms Dhu’s Death in Police Custody

Dark prison cell
July 2016

By Roxanne Hislop



A Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (RCIADIC) was established twenty-five years ago to investigate claims that Aboriginal people were dying under suspicious circumstances in policy custody.  Despite the commission providing over three hundred recommendations to ameliorate the criminal justice system and reduce the rate of incarceration among Aboriginal Australians, the Government has fundamentally failed.

A coronial inquest into the death of a 22 year old Yamatji woman, Ms Dhu has exposed the persistent culture of negligent, ruthless and inhumane treatment that Australia’s Aboriginal community continues to endure in police custody to this day. Indigenous Australians are still commonly subjected to racial vilification, based on assumptions of negative racial stereotypes and inequalities, which are unconsciously perpetuated by the mainstream media’s apathy in reporting on Indigenous issues.

The general media silence around Indigenous news stories and issues raises pertinent questions about the mainstream media agenda. Negligible media coverage of the coronial enquiry into Ms Dhu’s death suggests an indifference to the young woman’s tragic and avoidable death.  If you don’t watch NITV or read New Matilda or the National Indigenous Times, this might be the first time you’re hearing the name Ms Dhu.

Media silence about Ms Dhu

In August 2014, Ms Dhu was incarcerated for having accrued over $3,500 worth of unpaid fines. Yet, for such a minor offence, she was mocked and accused of exaggerating her symptoms as she fell gravely ill in policy custody.  In the 45 hours of her imprisonment, Ms Dhu was doubled over in excruciating pain. The autopsy revealed that the causes of death were infectious pneumonia and septicaemia, which were related to a rib injury she had sustained in a previous domestic violence incident.

The coronial inquest proceedings opened with confronting CCTV footage of Ms Dhu being “dragged around like a dead kangaroo,” as described by family member Carol Roe. As Ms Dhu was too ill to stand up, and moaning in excruciating pain, she was dragged from her cell and slung into the back of a police van, where one of the police officers on duty can be heard telling her to “shut up”.

Ms Dhu’s case also exposes the institutional racism that is systemic in the medical profession, particularly in rural areas. Ms Dhu had visited the South Headland medical clinic on two occasions prior to the third and final time, only to be assessed as being physically healthy enough to be in police custody. However, during the inquest, an emergency department specialist conceded that a culmination of negative racial stereotypes and inequalities resulted in an apathetic attitude by the medical staff in adequately assessing Ms Dhu’s medical condition. It is suggested that the meagre duty of care towards Ms Dhu was engendered by the fact she was an Aboriginal woman, was in police custody, had a history of drug abuse, as well as being a victim of domestic abuse. As such, these cumulative factors and racial stereotypes are believed to have impaired an adequate assessment of her health.     

Medical assessment of Ms Dhu
Initially, Ms Dhu’s family requested that the CCTV footage not be released; however they are now demanding that the Australian public witness firsthand the cruel and brutal treatment that Ms Dhu was subjected to. They call for justice, with the hope that her death will not be in vein and with a resolve to expose the relentless discrimination that confronts the Aboriginal community. 

“They’d know what we’ve got to put up with all our life,” Ms Roe said. “They invaded us and now we’ve got to get murdered for it, slaughtered for it, slaughtered like dogs.”      

The inexplicable treatment Ms Dhu experienced in the 45 hours she spent in police custody posits a profound challenge to the Australian values of being a humane, compassionate and fair society.  How is it that the tragic death of Ms Dhu has not incited a national outcry, demanding the Government act on the promises of ‘fair and just treatment’ made 25 years ago? Instead, this shocking story has remained largely absent from the mainstream media.

The media has the capacity to awaken the nation’s conscience in acknowledging the systemic racial violence that continues unabated. Despite the reasons for not releasing this footage, veiled in concern for the long-term welfare of the family, are we unconsciously suppressing the rights of the Aboriginal community?

This footage has the potency to inflame public outrage and put deeply entrenched institutional racism under the microscope. The fact that Ms Dhu’s death has attracted limited media coverage, demonstrates the tendency for the mainstream media to marginalise Indigenous issues. As a result, non-Indigenous Australia remains ignorant to the true injustices that many of our Aboriginal communities face on a daily basis. Wider circulation of the CCTV footage might bring us one step closer to justice and inevitably expose the fundamental truth: the truth that despite the proclamations of being a progressive society, we have consistently failed to protect and improve Indigenous lives in policy custody, and this will be our national shame.