UPDATE, September 18, 3.30pm: Shadow Minister for Police Kon Vatskalis has called on the CLP Government to implement Coroner Greg Cavanagh’s recommendation regarding reducing the supply of excess alcohol from take away outlets. However, he puts his own gloss on what that would mean: reinstating the Banned Drinker Register.
The BDR would reduce supply only to the limited number of drinkers identified by its processes, a total of 2,491 people across the Territory as of the end of June. The figure pales in comparison with the protective custody figures quoted in the coroner’s report: 25,966 for the 12 months to the end of April, almost half of them – 11,115 – in Alice Springs.
The Coroner acknowledged “the significant efforts” of the NT Government but said quite specifically “something more must be done”. He pointed particularly to the responsibility of liquor traders: “A long term solution to excess alcohol consumption in Alice Springs requires greater cooperation amongst stakeholders (including outlets that sell alcohol) to tackle demand and supply.”
He made the link between sale of alcohol and the problems it causes explicit: he didn’t say the NT Police shoulders a huge burden from problem drunks, he said “the NT Police shoulders a huge burden from alcohol sales”.
By KIERAN FINNANE
Chief Minister Terry Mills has side-stepped Coroner Greg Cavanagh’s recommendation that an urgent meeting of stakeholders be convened in Alice Springs to commit to “all available, reasonable measures to reduce the supply of excess alcohol from take away outlets”. As reported yesterday, this was one of two recommendations to government made by the Coroner in handing down his findings from the inquest into the death in custody of Kwemetyaye Briscoe.
Mr Mills’ response in a media release focussed on “the need for cultural change within the Northern Territory police force”, although he accepted the recommendations “regarding the need for a nursing presence and improved medical rooms in Territory watch houses”. He said the government “would also work to improve protocols between the Alice Springs watch house and the hospital”, not something alluded to in the Coroner’s findings.
On the problem with police culture, Mr Mills, sees it as a “stubbornness in relation to police resource allocation”.This is something he hopes the O’Sullivan review into police resourcing will tackle, and he has increased the O’Sullivan review budget from $100,000 to $180,000 to ensure all steps are taken to get the best possible outcomes from the review process.”
On the issue of alcohol control, Mr Mills said only that the “Country Liberals will increase the focus on mandatory rehabilitation”. He said the Coroner’s report makes a mockery of Labor’s claims about the effectiveness of its failed Banned Drinker Register: “Despite what the previous Government claimed, the BDR did not stop problem drunks accessing alcohol.”
There is no evidence in the Coroner’s report that Mr Briscoe was on the BDR so his particular case is not a test of its effectiveness or otherwise. It does however offer a glimpse into a culture of excessive drinking and the weaknesses in the current regime that attempts to rein it in. The Coroner is clearly of the view that the regime needs strengthening by further restriction of take away sales.
The alcohol drunk in a lethal amount by Mr Briscoe was purchased from suburban take away outlets. He had been drinking much of the day, sharing with friends and family from 30-packs of beer purchased from the Heavitree Gap Store and in the afternoon and evening from the Flynn Drive Supermarket.
In the evening he joined a large group of friends drinking in the vicinity of Flynn Oval, which is adjacent to the Flynn Drive Supermarket . Police arrived on the scene towards 9pm after a complaint that there were drunk people fighting near the supermarket. A couple were placed in protective custody and police approached the group at the opposite end of the oval that included Mr Briscoe. The group dispersed, leaving behind bottles of wine, cans of open VB and Bundaberg Rum. Police gave chase and Mr Briscoe was apprehended after falling to the ground. The Coroner accepted the evidence of the arresting officer that it was “appropriate to detain Kwementyaye” because he was believed to be intoxicated and was in a public place.
Mr Briscoe was put in the police van and some minutes later a further three men joined him there, two of them apprehended in Adamson Avenue. Unbeknown to the police, one of the three, Oscar White, had a 700ml bottle of Bundaberg Rum hidden in his shorts – police either did not search him or did not do it adequately. This rum had been bought for Mr White by another person, from the Flynn Drive Supermarket, which suggests that Mr White would not have been served, either because he was already drunk or was on the BDR.
In the van the four detainees shared the rum. One was handcuffed and could only drink small capfuls. He and the other two all became sick and vomited as they were being taken to the Watch House, leaving Mr Briscoe to consume the lion’s share – around half of the bottle, “pushing himself into a category of extreme intoxication”.
He blood alcohol reading, taken at autopsy, was .350, “within the lethal range”. It was the view of Forensic Pathologist Dr Terence Sinton that it was the sole cause of his death. However, the Coroner was persuaded by the view of Forensic Physician Dr Maurice Odell that positional asphyxia and compromised airways also contributed.
Mr Briscoe had started drinking alcohol to excess after he turned 18. He was 27 when he died and was already showing signs of hardening of the arteries. He had five alcohol-related convictions on his adult record, although none were serious enough to warrant a term in prison. As previously reported, he had been put into protective custody 31 times, 20 of them at the Alice Springs Watch House.