The Northern Territory coroner has criticised NT Police over the death of a man in March 2016, saying its care and treatment of the man was inadequate and his death may have been preventable.
- 70yo man slipped and hit his head on a wall
- Police did not have authority to move man
- NT Police say it will address issues in updated training
Mr Young, 70, whose first name was not used for cultural reasons, was asleep on a mattress on the floor of a house when he was woken by police who were clearing people from the property, at the request of its occupant.
Mr Young was helped to his feet by an officer, but was unsteady and tripped, hitting his head on the wall as he fell.
He was taken to Royal Darwin Hospital, but died from his head injuries a few weeks later.
During a coronial inquest, coroner Greg Cavanagh raised concerns about the officers’ actions, describing them as “heavy handed” but not “contemptuous”.
In his findings, Judge Cavanagh criticised NT Police for its role in, and response to, the death which he said happened “as a direct consequence of their attempts to move him on”.
“In all the circumstances of this case the death of Mr Young may well have been a preventable death,” he said.
“Yet almost two years after his death police remained satisfied that nothing was amiss.
“They showed little willingness to critically analyse the circumstances surrounding Mr Young’s death.”
Police did not have powers to remove man: coroner
Judge Cavanagh made particular note of a perceived lack of knowledge about police powers in the law.
“The circumstances of this death and the response from senior police indicate either a significant misunderstanding of the law or a careless disregard for it,” he said.
“The police officers did not give a great deal of thought to the powers they were utilising.
Judge Cavanagh said under the law, the police did not have the authority to move Mr Young on, as he was not trespassing on the property and had not previously been told by the occupant to leave.
Police had ‘no right’ to wake Mr Young, coroner says
He also said police had no right to wake Mr Young because he was not behaving anti-socially and they did not have a duty of care over him because he was not in danger or at risk of harm.
But the coroner said after police had woken him, there was a “reasonably foreseeable risk of harm” to Mr Young given it was dark, he was frail and he was intoxicated.
“It is difficult to know what would have happened if the appropriate steps had been taken by the occupier and police in this case,” Judge Cavanagh said.
“Perhaps the occupier might have considered that if police were unwilling to intervene, Mr Young could stay and sleep off the intoxication.
“Or, if woken by the occupier, he might have taken more time to wake up and may not have felt rushed to leave.”
The principal legal officer at the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency said the findings illustrated the gaps in training for police about their powers and the law.
“We have to recognise that police do an important job, but they have to do a job according to the powers and the lawful powers that apply to them in those circumstances,” David Woodroffe said.
“This report highlights a really deep concern in the Northern Territory around police powers and Indigenous people in public spaces and in public housing.
“But also particularly about a lack of training in relation to police and their powers in those circumstances — and that was a critical finding in relation to this tragedy.”
Police say issues will be addressed
In a statement, Deputy Commissioner of Operations Kate Vanderlaan said NT Police accepted the coroner’s recommendations and would work towards addressing the issues identified as part of its updated training.
Deputy Commissioner Vanderlaan said, in response to criticism police were unwilling to accept Mr Young was injured while in the control of police, that despite police following a process for reporting custody incidents, there were occasions where the requirements were “misinterpreted”.
“Police will be reminded of the process and requirements as part of our updated training,” she said.