Briscoe Inquest: reduce supply of excess alcohol from take away outlets, says Coroner


“The NT Police shoulders a huge burden from alcohol sales. They cannot be expected to tackle the social problems that result, in the absence of further initiatives to stop the flow of alcohol in the community.” – Coroner Greg Cavanagh, Kwementyaye Briscoe Inquest 
Less than one month after taking power and ushering in a new era of Territorians taking “individual responsibility” for their drinking, the Mills CLP Government has been called upon by the Coroner to urgently convene a stakeholder meeting in Alice Springs to commit to “all available, reasonable measures to reduce the supply of excess alcohol from take away outlets”.
This is one of two recommendations to the government arising from the inquest into the death in custody of Kwementyaye Briscoe, who died in the Alice Springs Watch House on January 4 this year. Coroner Greg Cavanagh handed down his findings today.
The other recommendation is that nursing staff, with a suitably equipped medical room, be provided on a daily basis to the Watch Houses in Alice Springs as well as Darwin, Katherine and Tennant Creek.
Some progress has already been made on this front. Nurses began working at the Darwin Police Station just weeks before Mr Briscoe’s death, and were stationed for the first time in Alice and Katherine from April 23, 2012. At present they work from 7pm to 3am, from Wednesday to Saturday, with plans to expand the number of shifts and to recruit nursing staff for the Tennant Creek Watch House.
There are three recommendations to the NT Police, but no finding that an offence was committed by any member of the force (and there was no request from Counsel for him to so find). The recommendations are that:
• dragging detainees is unacceptable ;
• a wheelchair, stretcher or the like should be obtained to transport prisoners unable to move themselves:
• rigorous auditing of Watch House rosters be conducted to ensure the role of Watch House Keeper is maintained.
In relation to individual members of the force, the Coroner unreservedly accepted that “decent people made errors” on the night of Mr Briscoe’s death, but the “catalogue of errors is so extensive, and involved so many police officers of various rank, as to suggest mismanagement for a period of time by Police Command at a level higher than just ‘local'”.
The  chronology of events from the time of Mr Briscoe being taken into protective custody up until the discovery of his dead body in Cell 9 of the Watch House makes for stark reading. Particularly disturbing is the account of what happened after the inadequate handover at the change of shift, around 11pm.
A health assessment had not been done, although the paperwork was ticked off, and Mr Briscoe had not been given medical care. Now the outgoing staff (two ACPOs and a Watch House Commander) passed on “inferior information” to the next shift, two probationary constables and Watch House Commander. This information included the “stubborn” view that Mr Briscoe was highly aggressive and too agitated to accept any care – a “fatal error”.
It is excruciating to read of the failings of this second shift, including their “utterly derelict” approach to cell checks, while amusing themselves on the Internet, and their ignoring of distress calls made by other prisoners.
“It is likely that the prisoners in Cell 16 were seeing Kwementyaye in the last moments he was alive and at the last opportunity police had to save his life. [The prisoners] could hear distressing noises from Cell 9, described by the men as coughing, gasping and choking … CCTV footage shows that the last movement of Kwementyaye’s body was a very slight twitching of his limbs, at 11.42 pm, just two minutes before the call button was activated.”
The probationary constables never spoke to the prisoners who activated the button. The next time anyone (the Watch House Commander) checked on Mr Briscoe was at 1.41am, when he was no longer breathing and already cold.
The “systemic failures” that the Coroner found contributed to Mr Briscoe’s death included the failure to roster a Watch House Keeper in Alice Springs after August 2011; the failure to roster experienced officers at the Watch House; the use of ACPOs as Watch House Keepers; and the rostering of ACPOs with probationary constables. This situation was able to continue in the absence of any formal Watch House audit.
Again, some progress has already been made on these issues. Indeed, the Coroner describes the “suite of reforms” as “so comprehensive”  that he can only highlight the most significant.
These include:
• recruitment of staff from interstate on condition that they undertake a posting outside of Darwin;
• the employment of Custody Sergeants, ensuring that there is always a senior officer to properly mentor junior staff;
• the Watch House Keeper role has been retained and henceforth that officer wears a vest, rather than a small badge, identifying them in the role to “make it glaringly obvious if they were not on duty”.
• auditing of rosters and Watch House practices;
• “advanced technology” is to be used to ensure cell checks are taking place;
• the Custody Manual and the Standard Operating Procedures have been revised (the Coroner heard evidence that members of the force had either not read them or didn’t even know of the existence of the SOPs) ;
• a serious effort has already been made to improve training with regard to duty of care of detainees;
• there will be an induction package for officers working at the Watch House, “embracing information relating to previous deaths in custody and the findings at inquests” (the Coroner repeatedly expressed his dismay at the failure of police to implement previous undertakings made to him or recommendations made by him at past inquests);
• a commitment to purchasing a conveyance to assist officers to move detainees, but as the Coroner notes, “if they are so incapacitated that they are unable to move themselves [as became the case with Mr Briscoe], they should be taken to get immediate medical care”.
That leaves the matter of alcohol supply as THE outstanding issue awaiting commitment from government.
If we need any reminding, it’s all there in the Coroner’s report. He quotes Assistant Commissioner Mark Payne who has over 25 years experience of policing in the NT:
“As a serving police officer at Alice Springs, it is my experience that the vast majority of police work involves dealing with persons seriously affected by alcohol through excessive and very extensive liquor consumption. For the most part those seriously affected are indigenous and tend to exhibit evidence of chronic alcohol dependency including symptoms of poor health and hygiene.”
The Coroner quotes the statistics for protective custodies – 11,115 for Alice Springs (in both the sobering up shelter and the Watch House) in the 12 months to 30 April, 2012. Mr Briscoe had been put into protective custody 31 times, 20 of them in the Alice Springs Watch House.
“The current situation where Police Officers in Alice Springs spend half their time on duty picking up ‘protective custodies’ is simply unacceptable,” says the Coroner, yet it continues despite all the various efforts at reform.
“The NT Police shoulders a huge burden from alcohol sales. They cannot be expected to tackle the social problems that result, in the absence of further initiatives to stop the flow of alcohol in the community,” the Coroner concludes.
He describes Mr Briscoe as “but one of many young men whose ambitions, education and health were eroded by alcohol abuse. At the age of 27, he had already begun to show the signs of chronic disease. At autopsy there was evidence of … hardening of the arteries. He had clearly been binge drinking for around a decade, and alcohol had been involved in each of the adult offences he committed.”
Mr Briscoe had consumed a lethal amount of alcohol on the night of his death. His blood alcohol reading was .350, but the Coroner found that he died as a result of the combined effects of acute alcohol intoxication, positional asphyxia and aspiration, which ultimately obstructed airways and led to death”.
His supervision and treatment by NT Police was “completely inadequate”.
“This lack of care resulted in his death, that is to say, this death was preventable and it should not have occurred.”


  1. Hi all, everyone knows my view on alcohol availability. Reducing supply from liquor outlets I believe will have no real effect as chronic alcoholics will endeavor at all cost to access their chosen drug.
    Reading this report the single biggest red flag which was waved in my face was this. “Mr Briscoe had been put into protective custody 31 times, 20 of them in the Alice Springs Watch House.” This clearly constitutes a major drinking problem. This is where rehab comes into the equation. If a person is unwilling to help themselves then let assistance be mandatory. Perhaps a stint in rehab could have been the answer to Kwementyaye Briscoe’s problems? We will never know but I believe the rehab way is worth a try.
    On another topic, 10’s The Project last night aired a very interesting segment on the drinking mentality. Well worth watching! It appears amongst youth especially that the culprit is not alcohol but energy drinks. Watch the program for the explanation.

  2. Yes, Rex, we know your “view on alcohol availability”, but may I suggest you call the Salvation Army Media Office in Darwin. Their latest Alcohol Awareness Campaign data is now available showing the harm that alcohol is doing to Territory families and their kids. From my reading it suggests that non-Indigenous people are highly represented. I quoted from the 2011 AAC earlier this year in relation to mental health and alcoholism at AS News Online.

  3. ‘Privatising the profits and socialising the problem’ is a real issue here. Take-away liquor outlets in Alice Springs are making a veritable fortune from sales. It would be interesting to see just how much.
    A condition of holding a take-away liquor licence could be that operators have to disclose their turn-over and profit margins from alcohol sales every 3 months in an open forum. I know that includes purchases from locals, visitors and tourists but that would give the general public a clearer idea of just how much alcohol is being purchased (and presumably consumed) in Alice Springs. No disclosure equals no licence.

  4. While the coroner, other magistrates and judges may make recommendations and are entitled to their opinions, no matter how important they are within the system of government within which we operate, the elected government with the support (or otherwise) of the opposition makes the laws. No doubt the new government will take Mr Cavanagh’s recommendations into account when doing so.

  5. It should be noted by all in the position of authority that (excluding Coles and Woolworths) the majority of alcohol is obtained from outlets owned by the Aboriginal organisations.

  6. It’s worth noting that the Alice Springs Watchhouse, opened in 1998, was designed and built in response to the findings of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody two decades ago. I understand this fact was mentioned at the Briscoe Inquest.
    The statistics for protective custodies (11,115 for Alice Springs in the 12 months to 30 April, 2012) quoted in this inquest mirrors the figures listed by Chief Minister Marshall Perron in his Ministerial Statement on Crime in Alice Springs of May 1990, when he observed that in “recent years” (late 1980s) the number of people taken into protective custody averaged 11,000 annually, which “suggested that half of the population of Alice Springs is found drunk on the streets at least once per year”.
    Perron elaborated on these statistics: “The fact is that figures from the Alice Springs Sobering Up Shelter shows that 97 per cent of those admitted in the 12 months to June last year [1989] were Aboriginals: three quarters were male with an average age of 32 years – you can see why Aboriginal women marched against grog in Alice Springs last Saturday.
    “129 people were each admitted 10 times or more during the course of the year; and one individual spent 123 nights in protective custody during the same year”.
    In 1994 Mayor Andy McNeill stated that over 13,000 people were taken into protective custody in Alice Springs in 1991, which was his last full year as the Southern Region Assistant Commissioner for NT Police.
    In regard to “Assistant Commissioner Mark Payne who has over 25 years experience of policing in the NT”, it’s worth being more specific about the length of his career in the NT Police.
    Mark Payne was a classmate of mine at the Alice Springs High School in the late 1970s. I don’t know when he joined the NT Police but his career almost certainly stretches back over 30 years by now.
    What was the local policing situation like when Mr Payne was a young constable? Well, the Alice Springs Town Council held a public meeting on alcohol abuse on 26 October, 1982, at which it was stated “20 out of every 22 people in the Alice Springs Hospital are admitted for alcohol related problems, according to the chief surgeon Charles Butcher” (“Liquor main illness cause”, Centralian Advocate, 29 October, 1982). This meeting addressed just about every aspect of alcohol availability, hours of sale, licence conditions, education programs, types of crime and all the rest of it that we are still debating today.
    Simultaneously the then NT Health Minister Ian Tuxworth announced that “a series of sobering up centres in the Territory would be introduced within 12 months. The shelters will be used to take in drunk people overnight or until they sobered up”.
    The Advocate used to have a regular column called Centre Sidelights; and one comment published on 26 May, 1982, is particularly relevant: “Man who came before Magistrate John Murphy in the Alice Springs Court last week was making his 145th appearance in the halls of justice. Of those appearances, 117 were on drink-related charges. Mr Murphy asked if we were concerned enough about what drink is doing to Aboriginal people. It would seem we are not.”

  7. Janice (@Posted September 21, 2012 at 8:21 pm): actually when you exclude Coles and Woolies, the majority of alcohol is obtained from the Gapview Hotel, the Todd Tavern, the Heavitree Gap Hotel store, Elders, Piggly Wiggly, Club Eastside and the Gillen Club, and many other clubs, bars and restaurants.

  8. Hi Bob, you forgot to mention all the IGAs. They sell a bucket load. And guess who owns them?
    Alex, you never cease to amaze! Your stats and historical knowledge are incredible.

  9. Rex, re IGA’s selling a bucketload, this is precisely why “a licence to buy” puts some responsibility into the supply side. Organisations like the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE) have said that “responsible serving of alcohol” is effectively in name only.
    Instead of always focusing responsibility on the demand side, if we can’t get control on the supply side, you can forget about all the talk about Royal Commissions into the deplorable state of the alcohol industry in the NT – it will just be another expensive talk-fest. Bucketloads of money, Rex.
    The BDR was headed in the direction of having to produce a licence to drink and the West Australians think highly enough of it to be considering its introduction.

  10. Rex (posted @ Posted September 25, 2012 at 12:55 am): Read the stream.
    Far from “forgetting the IGAs”, my post (Posted September 22, 2012 at 2:50 pm) was in reply to Janice (@Posted September 21, 2012 at 8:21 pm), who ignorantly opined that the Aboriginal owned outlets (the IGAs and Milner Rd) were responsible for selling the majority of liquor that wasn’t being sold by Coles and Woolies.
    My point was that she was badly misinformed: the IGAs and Milner Rd only account for a small proportion of the non-Coles / Woolies sales; the bulk of it is sold through the outlets I listed @ Posted September 22, 2012 at 2:50 pm.

  11. I had a quick look at some of the areas I go on holidays or have lived, as I have never seen the problems Alice Springs has before moving here. In Bundaberg in Qld there are three BWS, two Liquorland, five Liquor King, and six independent liquor shops. There are also three taverns listed. In addition you have many, many restaurants and sporting clubs that sell take away alcohol to their members. This is all within a 30km radius, not to mention the outlying areas. Population about 80,000 plus outlying areas.
    Wynnum in Qld is similar, if you include the neighboring suburb of Manly the population is about 25,000. For this many people there are 14 bottle shops alone. Add to this licenced clubs, sporting facilities, restaurants, taverns etc, and the amount of alcohol available is similar, if not more than Alice Springs. All figures are approximate, but if availability was really the issue, surely the problem would be replicated in these, and similar areas right across the country.
    We have what is arguably the largest renal dialysis facility in the southern hemisphere, yet we do not hear of the rivers of sugar killing and destroying the lives of once again, a disproportionate number of Aboriginal people. It’s really easy to single out grog as the problems it creates is so visible in our community, but like sugary food and drink, it is the way in which it is consumed that causes the problems.
    The Gillen Club and Eastside only supply to their members, so I do not think they are a major supplier to the habitual drunk, including Elders is also drawing a pretty long bow. Three legal outlets, The Gap, The Todd and Heavitree supply alcohol as their primary business, the same as all other bottleshops around the country.
    Russell @10 talks about non-indigenous being highly represented in Darwin, 1500km away. I think you will find Russell that the representation of non-indigenous / non-aboriginal / white taken into protective custody here in Alice Springs is comparatively quite low.
    Let’s not muddy the waters here, the argument is about a massive problem that a disproportionate number of Aboriginal people have with alcohol consumption. Can we please acknowledge that this is the major problem. By identifying this as the primary issue, we can direct the needed resources and formulate a plan to deal with it.
    As long as we keep beating around the bush and generalising, this same sad situation will continue well into the next generation.

  12. Ray’s comment, Posted September 26, 2012 at 9:29 pm, makes an interesting observation that is echoed from an article published in the Centralian Advocate 30 years ago, which is quoted extensively below:
    “Aboriginal deaths caused by alcohol in Alice Springs have reached numbers that frighten police, doctors, coroners and Government Ministers.
    “Alcohol as the primary cause of death, in lay man’s terms literally drowning in the stuff, caused just one death last year. However, when one considers secondary causes, more than 100 Aborigines have died as a result of a drunken stupor in the past 18 months.
    “The alcohol was consumed mostly in the Todd and Charles River beds.
    “Statistics that show blood alcohol contents of up to 0.34 per cent confirm Alice Springs as the worst town in Australia for Aboriginal drink deaths.
    “Autopsy records and statistics show the cause of these deaths as loss of blood, smashed skulls and other injuries.
    “Sweet sherry, muscat and wine fortified with raw spirits are the real killers.
    “All types of grog are consumed in huge amounts and recent restrictions on the amount of one type allowed to be sold seems to make no difference to the death count.
    “Some of the men and women who have died as a result of drink have been as young as 25 and to be dead drunk at 35 is not uncommon.
    “Port Hedland in Western Australia has about six such deaths a year.
    “Alice Springs has the reputation of being the worst town in Australia for the numbers of Aborigines who end up on a slab in the morgue after drinking.
    “The Port Hedland hospital serves a town of 17,000 with an Aboriginal population of about 10 per cent in the area [however] the problem was nowhere the size in Port Hedland as it was in Alice Springs.
    “The story was much the same in other towns in Australia with substantial numbers of Aboriginal residents.
    “Although most did not approach the 25 per cent of Aborigines living in the Centre the proportion of drink deaths was way below that of Alice Springs.
    “Bourke in NSW does have a 25 per cent Aboriginal population but only had two drink deaths in the last six months” (“Many die from the grip of the grape”, Centralian Advocate, August 18, 1982).
    I’ll leave the final word to Central Australia’s most revered Aboriginal personality, Albert Namatjira, whose observations on this topic reported 60 years ago has proven dreadfully prophetic:
    “Albert Namatjira wants full citizenship rights. He believes that some of his people are entitled to it but is frightened at the thought of what would happen if some in the town areas were given their “freedom”.
    “They would drink liquor like water,” said the strong featured, quietly spoken artist when asked his views on the subject this week” (“Namatjira wants citizenship rights, Centralian Advocate, October 24, 1952).

  13. Ray, despite the fact that you continue to lack the courage of your convictions by not posting your surname, your comments need some kind of response.
    I’m glad to see that you agree that alcohol-abuse in Alice is a “massive” problem in what you consider to be focussed on a “disproportionate” Aboriginal sector, but like the current Queensland government attempt to review / dismantle Alcohol Management Plans (AMP) put in place in Aboriginal communities by the Beattie’s ALP govt in 2002, you and Steve Brown et al, continue to focus on alcohol-abuse as an Indigenous problem, using terms like “racist” and “paternalist” when the point has been made ad nauseum that it’s an Australia-wide problem and increasing.
    The alcohol industry has no intention of self-regulating or packing up and going away.
    In your posts, you could start asking why Australia has such a massive, drinking culture and look a little closer at the alcohol industry, its advertising, promotion, mates in government and business.
    In the NSW community of Byron Bay last Summer, I worked for two weeks emptying wheelie bins from holiday lettings and was staggered to find that 95% were brim full, each morning, with alcohol bottles, ranging through beer, spirits and champagne (a correct statistic).
    For the past weeks, local papers have been running letters to the editor debating the alcohol problem in Byron as the liquor chain ‘Dan Murphy’ wants to open.
    Can I suggest you go and see the Salvation Army officers in Alice, talk to them about homelessness and families suffering from various alcohol related issues and obtain a copy of the Alcohol Awareness Week data just released.
    Do some research instead of saying things like “I think you’ll find…” etc. Get on the web and access the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education site. It will open a proverbial Pandora’s Box of ongoing research into the disproportionate effects of liberal alcohol supply in the Australian community.
    Regards, Russell (bona-fide, card carrying member of the lunatic fringe and loopy left association).

  14. Hello again Russell. A few points. Contributions are permitted without surnames, I choose not to supply mine, which is my right, please do not denigrate me by saying I do not have courage.
    I am offering my views in an effort to contribute to the discussion, and for reasons that matter to me, I do not wish to use my last name. It does not make my opinion any less valid. I do not agree that personal attacks or names such as loopy left, radical right help anybody.
    I do not use the terms racist and paternalistic in the context that you suggest. Your comments to me suggest that any view that opposes yours must be wrong, and you lump many contributors together. Some rant and rave, but that is passion (sometimes unbridled).
    I well know about the problems in Byron Bay, in Kings Cross, and even in Mitchell Street, however I was talking about our unique problems. With all the empty bottles you collected, it would have been interesting to see how many of those people were taken into protective custody, or even hospital. We need to deal with the biggest problem that is causing the most damage in our town.
    Young white males getting blotto and coupling that with extreme violence is a major problem all over the country, however it is not our number one problem. Let’s target and find specific solutions to OUR problems, that is Aboriginal men such as Mr Briscoe needing to get so drunk that they need to be taken into protective custody. By the level of intoxication, he could have easily ended up as a death outside of custody.
    How has this been happening for so long? I played golf this morning, mowed the yard and did some gardening, after that I bought a carton of beer and had a few while making dinner for my family. Many many people do this, as it is the responsible consumption of grog.
    If we closed all bottle shops except one, those people would still get grog, and the owner of that one shop would be very very rich. This was evident during the BDR. The same drunks were still getting locked up because they could still get alcohol, either by having their kin buy it, smashing into shops, houses or other means.
    My point Russell, is that for many years people have been very afraid [to say] it is a problem that primarily affects Aboriginal people.
    This is evident in the facts and figures you quote. Until we are able to identify the problem, without being accused of being racist, we are fighting with our hands tied behind our backs.
    I’m not interested in getting in an argument with you Russell, I enjoy reading all opinions and occasionally like to send mine. Cheers, Ray.

  15. In reply to Ray (@Posted September 27, 2012 at 10:15 pm):
    Ray stated that “The same drunks were still getting locked up because they could still get alcohol, either by having their kin buy it, smashing into shops, houses or other means.”
    This assertion is fundamentally flawed, and also neglectful of other relevant considerations.
    Firstly, the fallacy is demonstrated by the fact that, by the end of the BDR era, police at the Alice Springs Watch-house were hosting less than half the number of protective custody clients compared to the winter period in 2011. (The data reflecting this is only partly included in the NT crime statistics released a couple of days ago, which only contained information up to the end of June).
    Secondly, when the ban was lifted, banned drinkers celebrated and public drinking resumed on a large scale in public areas. Police were suddenly run off their feet trying to respond to a proliferation of incidents and were unable to continue preventing much of the illegal transport of grog for consumption in banned houses and prescribed areas.
    Thirdly, and most tellingly, publicans were complaining that the enforcement of the BDR at the entrance to their public bars was undermining their business model, and causing their profits to collapse.
    The allegation that the same drinkers “were still getting locked up because they could get alcohol, either by having their kin buy it, smashing into shops, houses or other means” at anything like previous rates is preposterous, and amounts to pure spin by the industry and its allies.
    The amount of alcohol obtained in break-ins was nowhere near comparable to the amounts of reduced sales at bars and bottle shops.
    The ability of drinkers to enlist relatives to purchase on their behalf had been greatly reduced as the effects of the BDR had gradually reached “critical mass”. When 800 locals were no longer easily able to obtain grog over the counter, the drinking culture had come under such severe constraints, as manifested by the points listed above, that it began to recede.
    More importantly, a very significant by-product of this dynamic is ignored by Ray and his fellow cynics: the BDR was also beginning to make in-roads into the rate of reproduction of the heavy drinking culture. As the drinking circles were reduced in frequency, size and impact, so the opportunities for young people and other new drinkers to get enveloped by this activity and quickly addicted became less. This receding was enabling other complementary measures to begin to work.
    The sudden abolition of the BDR has sent all these gains down the plug hole. This has been a great set-back to the development of a healthy society in Central Australia.
    All those concerned to see a healthy local society, economy and culture should implore Mills, Elferink and the four Central Australian-based Ministers to re-introduce the BDR for a two or three year period, and give it a fair trial and evaluation.


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