What the final hours of Ms Dhu's life tells us about our broken justice system

Ms Dhu's relatives in mourning.

Ms Dhu's relatives in mourning. Photo: The Deaths In Custody Watch Committee (WA) Inc

It's a well-established fact that rather than feeling protected by the police, a lot of Aboriginal people feel unsafe, threatened and vulnerable in their presence. When we hear that Aboriginal Australians are 15 times more likely to be imprisoned than non-Aboriginal people, that paperless arrest laws in the Northern Territory unfairly target Aboriginal people, that an Aboriginal man on his way to work can be randomly drug searched because he fits some obscure profile, it really doesn't do a lot for our confidence in the justice system.

On Monday, the coronial inquest into the death of 22-year-old Aboriginal woman Ms Dhu offers another chilling reason for this mistrust.  

Ms Dhu died in August 2014 while being held at the South Hedland police Police Station for unpaid fines of $3,622. That an Aboriginal woman in custody can be mocked, humiliated and have her wellbeing so neglected it potentially led to her death reads like a decades-old case contained within the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. Yet these were precisely the details that emerged from the opening addresses at the coronial inquest into Ms Dhu's death.

Ms Dhu died of cardiac arrest during her third visit from the Police Station to the Hedland Health Campus. She was imprisoned to "work off" unpaid fines under Western Australia's tough sentencing laws – laws which, like the Northern Territory paperless arrests, have disproportionately affected Aboriginal people despite promises from the Premier to introduce reforms.

Advertisement

It was later found Ms Dhu had pneumonia and septicaemia, which were partially caused by complications from a broken rib obtained during a domestic violence incident. She had been vomiting. She had notified police several times that her hands were turning blue and her legs felt numb. She had additionally fallen backwards and hit her head.

Yet despite her continual pleas for assistance, police told the Hedland Health Campus that they felt her condition was non-urgent. They told a nurse Ms Dhu was "faking it". They made the assumption she was withdrawing from drugs. One police officer was recorded telling Ms Dhu to "shut up" while she was moaning in pain.

After her body went limp just before her final visit to the Medical Campus, she was dragged out of her cell along the ground. She was then carried by her arms and legs to a police car. The coronial inquest continues, but it already seems brutally apparent that the police whose care she was supposed to be in during her incarceration were beyond neglectful.

Indeed, it appears they did not value Ms Dhu's life, dignity and humanity at all. For how many times could she make her condition known to the police before they finally took it seriously? Before the police then reported it to the Hedland Health Campus as critical and in need of full assessment? Before the Health Campus gave her the appropriate level of medical care needed to potentially save her life?

 

At every turn, Ms Dhu was failed: by a state which imprisons impoverished Aboriginal people so willingly; by police who neglected their duty of care; by a health service who appear to have taken the word of others on her condition rather than her own.

It's horrific enough that at only 22 years old, Ms Dhu spent her final hours in pain. That she appears to have additionally been the victim of both racism and misogyny which led to the neglect of her condition is unconscionable. Ms Dhu's family have had to wait for 15 months to start getting some answers as to why she is no longer with them. So far, what they have heard must be devastating and my heart goes out to them.

Many people are quick to say "you do the crime, you do the time". Yet Ms Dhu hadn't "done the crime". She was just too impoverished to pay fines most other people would consider a minor inconvenience. The fact that it appears she was also too Aboriginal and too female to be treated with due care during incarceration is infinitely more criminal.

What the full inquest will unearth about Ms Dhu's final hours is unknown at this stage. Based on evidence given thus far, it's reasonably clear that Aboriginal mistrust of police and the justice system is sadly well-founded.