By KIERAN FINNANE
“Edged weapon equals gun”: two police officers gave evidence in the Alice Springs Local Court today that that is their training. When they are confronted by someone armed with an edged weapon, they are to draw their firearm.
This was day one in the committal proceedings for Zachary Rolfe, the police officer accused of the murder of Kumanjayi Walker in Yuendumu, a remote community north-west of Alice Springs, on Saturday 9 November last year.
Mr Rolfe intends pleading not guilty to the charge. The committal will assess whether there is sufficient evidence against him to bring the case to trial. He attended today’s hearing by video-link. He looked drawn, remaining impassive as the charge was read out.
One of the witnesses were Constable First Class Breanna Bonney, who was with Mr Rolfe and the rest of their entire patrol group when they had planned to arrest Mr Walker in Alice Springs a day or two earlier. (It turned out that he was not in that location, Warlpiri Camp).
After the alleged shooting of Mr Walker in Yuendumu and after Mr Rolfe had been released from hospital where he was treated for a stab wound, Const Bonney and other officers gathered at his house.
“We all discussed that we’d all received the same use of force training, the basic principles, one of the main ones being that if we’re faced with an edged weapon we draw our firearm,” she said.
But what about discharging the firearm? she was asked.
“If they continue to threaten us with the firearm or advance on us … with an edged weapon, then we discharge our firearm.”
The other witness was the dog handler Senior Constable First Class Adam Donaldson, who also said his training was “It’s always firearm for an edged weapon.”
Central to the evidence today was an incident on 6 November at Yuendumu when Mr Walker confronted with an axe two police officers attempting to arrest him. The two officers were permanent staff at Yuendumu, Senior Constable First Class Christopher Hand and Senior Constable Lanyon Smith.
Const Hand, we learned, is the partner of Sergeant Julie Frost, the officer in charge at Yuendumu on the night of the alleged fatal shooting.
Body-worn footage of the axe incident was shown to the court. We saw one officer knocking on a closed door inside a house at Yuendumu. We later learned that this house is occupied by people referred to as Mr Walker’s grandparents and his partner. The knock was quiet; it was repeated. The door opened and a young woman was standing there, Mr Walker’s partner.
We could hear an officer saying, “Turn around, turn around … after we handcuff you.”
We later heard evidence from Sgt Frost that the young woman had “obstructed [the officers’] entry into the bedroom” and that this had given Mr Walker time to “retrieve an axe that he hidden under his mattress”.
A seeming violent scuffle followed. There was shouting, women’s voices, and the body-worn camera was moving in every direction. Sgt Frost said Mr Walker “came at [Const Hand] with the axe”. During the scuffle there was no discernible speech from the police officers. One of them, at least, then began to run.
We heard evidence that he gave chase to Mr Walker who ran off to the community’s men’s area.
The threat to Const Hand on 6 November and his relationship with Sgt Frost meant that they both would have a conflict of interest in being involved in the subsequent planned arrest of Mr Walker.
Sgt Frost told the court that after the axe incident she requested resources from Alice Springs, an IRT (Immediate Response Team) and, she insisted, a dog unit, “because I know that they don’t like dogs”. She wanted to be able to use the dog as a “bargaining chip” in future dealings with Mr Walker, to persuade him to surrender or they would get the dog unit out again.
The dog and handler, Const Donaldson, and the IRT team duly arrived at Yuendumu on the Saturday afternoon.
Sgt Frost tasked them with high visibility policing in the community – in response to a series of break-ins including at the nurses quarters (not the clinic), causing the nurses to evacuate the community. She also wanted them to cover call-outs so that she, Const Hand and Const Felix Alafeio, another permanent staffer at Yuendumu, could all get an uninterrupted sleep as they had been up all of the previous night.
The arrest was supposed to take place at around 5.30 on Sunday morning, when the community was quiet with everyone in bed.
The court has not yet heard evidence from the IRT team about what made them decide to move earlier, but Sgt Frost had told them that if they came across Mr walker, then by all means arrest him.
There was varying evidence of Mr Walkers’ “predisposition to violence”, as defence counsel put it.
Const Donaldson gave evidence that the dog unit is usually deployed for more significant or violent targets. He knew of the axe incident and when he saw the footage he thought the incident was “extremely dangerous and I was surprised no one was hurt”. Yet he said there was no discussion with the IRT that Mr Walker was a “high risk target”, nor of what might be done if he became violent or had weapons. It would be a “fairly standard deployment”, he told the court.
Sgt Frost did not regard him as a “danger to the community” but agreed that he was “violent and dangerous towards police when they went to arrest him”. She was prepared to allow him to attend a family member’s funeral on the Saturday, partly out of “respect”, knowing “funerals to Aboriginal people are particularly important.”
She thought he was more interested in escaping than attacking police, so she was not “really concerned” about approaching him herself, although she would always “kit up” just in case.
She had visited his grandparents, to tell them how dangerous the axe incident had been, that he “could have got my members killed”, that he himself could have been killed as a consequence of the attack, and to get them to persuade him to hand himself in after the funeral.
She had no intel that he was involved in the break-ins to the nurses quarters; on the contrary, when fingerprints were lifted, they were very small, suggesting a young child was involved.
She agreed that he had a history of domestic violence towards his partner.
She agreed he had access to weapons, but she did not believe he had access to a firearm.
She had flagged him in the PROMIS system as dangerous and violent.
The hearing continues.
Photos: Top, Ned Jampijinpa Hargraves of the Warlpiri Parumpurru (Justice) Committee addresses the crowd gathered on the courthouse lawns; he called for Mr Rolfe’s bail to be revoked, as he has done previously. Very few family members came into the court today. None attended by video-link at Yuendumu, so the link was closed. Police officers there reported very few people in the community. Above: Young Anyupa Butcher, also of the committee, left, attempts to calm agitated family members. She got on the microphone to remind the crowd they were there for “one reason only – to show solidarity with Kumanjayi Walker”.
Last updated 2 September 2020, 7.50am. Detail, links added.