‘Paperless’ death in custody shows lack of police accountability


Sir – The tragic death in police custody of a man arrested under controversial Northern Territory ‘paperless arrest’ legislation highlights the need for authorities to be held accountable for people held in detention.
The man reportedly died in the Darwin city watch house last Thursday night after being arrested for drinking in public.
The Northern Territory government has defended the legislation, saying the reduction in paperwork allowed police to do their job more efficiently. The man’s death demonstrates the critical need for authorities to prioritise the safety of people in custody over the institutional drive to cut costs.
In the cases of people with mental and physical illness, for example, recording details about their condition or medication is critical – if police do not have this information, individuals can die.
Paperwork is about accountability. Coronial inquests across Australia over many years have recommended that custodial authorities keep proper records of persons who come into detention.
The lack of proper custody records also left police vulnerable when things go wrong. Paperwork is as much about protecting police from allegations made as it is about ensuring there is accountability.
This is not bureaucracy and paper shuffling. It is about ensuring vital information is available to courts, individuals and their families and to coroners.
The ALA will also continue to advocate for greater independence in the investigation of deaths in custody.
Greg Barns
Australian Lawyers Alliance


  1. I understand the cause of this person’s death hasn’t yet been released. One would think it wiser to wait for the post mortem outcome before criticising the police and the paperless arrest environment. It may be that the deceased was suffering from imminent disaster anyway.
    As the expensive, long-running Aboriginal Deaths in Custody Report found, a large percentage of the deaths resulted from natural causes, drug overdoses and other causes not related to adverse police treatment or neglect.
    People in police custody properly have a much better chance of survival in the case of heart attack, stroke etc than they do lying around in a drunken stupor on some Aboriginal community.


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