Kumanjayi Walker inquest shines light on police

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Locals have turned into a shrine the cottage where Kumanjayi Walker was fatally wounded.

By ERWIN CHLANDA

Alleged racism in the ranks and elite groups within the NT Police are under the spotlight in the inquest into the death of Kumanjayi Walker at the Yuendumu police station on November 9, 2019.

Training, management and equipment for Immediate Response Team (IRT) members, and the lack of cultural awareness for officers deployed out bush, were the subjects of intense questioning.

Coroner Elisabeth Armitage last week heard evidence from former police officer Zachary Rolfe, acquitted in 2021 in the Supreme Court of murdering Mr Walker, and from Mr Rolfe’s Officer in Charge, Sergeant Lee Bauwens, head of the IRT.

Mr Rolfe, a former member of the Australian military, who served in Afghanistan, shot Mr Walker three times during an attempt to arrest him.

A string of text messages from smart phones and recordings from body mounted police cameras provided evidence for the coronial hearing.

Text from Constable Hansen in Borroloola: “The cops out here have fucked this town. They’ve been letting the [N-word] drink wherever they want, ha ha.”

Reply from Mr Rolfe: “Bush cops are fucking shithouse.” And later: “Girls and bush cops all disgust me, ha ha.”

Counsel assisting Peggy Dwyer to Mr Rolfe: “Did it accurately reflect your attitude to a substantial number of the female police you were dealing with?”

ROLFE (pictured during a filmed interview): Not at all. That’s why I’m saying it’s shit talk. I’ve said similar things about generalisations about all men.

Judge Armitage was told Hansen “has apologised profusely, he’s reflected on it deeply”.

Similar regrets have been expressed by Sgt Bauwens who texted to Mr Rolfe in July 2019, four months before he shot the Yuendumu youth: “These bush coons aren’t used to people going after them.”

Counsel Assisting Patrick Coleridge invited Sgt Bauwens to explain: “It’s – it’s – on the text message, your Honour. Zach was replying to – we were talking about a job … about chasing an offender. I made that comment. I have no absolute memory or recollection of that comment whatsoever. It’s not something I say. I don’t like the term. It’s not who I am but it’s there. There is no excuse.”

The inquest in Alice Springs, adjourned to May 27 following surprise events on Friday, is a landmark in open court procedures.

Vision and audio of the hearings are being streamed live for all the world to see. They remain available on YouTube via the court’s website.

Transcripts become available online within a couple of hours after each sittings. The opening remarks by Dr Dwyer were translated into Warlpiri.

Judge Armitage granted very few requests for non-publication orders from the 20-odd lawyers representing Mr Rolfe, the police, the Police Association, and three Yuendumu families and others.

One exception was the suppression order from Judge Armitage of the names of victims “of domestic violence or alleged domestic violence where it is alleged that Kumanjayi is the perpetrator of domestic violence, as I understand it there is”.

The public in Central Australia, a place continuously in the grip of law and order concerns, now has access to a massive volume of evidence about police performance, especially the structuring and use of police “assets”.

These include especially the elite Territory Response Group (TRG) and its “lite” counterpart in The Centre, the IRT, part of which had been sent to Yuendumu to arrest Mr Walker.

The major section of the inquest was due to be completed on Friday, with Sgt Bauwens and Mr Rolfe as witnesses during the whole week. But further racism allegations surfaced, in connection with mock awards handed out an annual family event for TRG members.

The questioning of Mr Rolfe had to be suspended.

Four TRG members issued statutory declarations explaining the meaning of the “Noogada” award.

That, according to James Gray-Spence, an Acting Assistant Commissioner in Alice Springs, is part of the social club for TRG members and their families, in the lead-up to Christmas.

He said it is not called the “Coon of the year award” and it was “given to the member of the TRG who engaged in poor conduct.

“The purpose of the awards is to poke fun at the individual. They are not intended to be offensive not do they intend to wound or demean the recipient,” Comm Gray-Spence stated on oath.

Judge Armitage made a temporary non-publication order covering the award certificates, as requested by Ian Freckleton, appearing for the police.

Sgt Bauwens was a TRG member for 10 years before moving to Alice Springs in 2014 to take on “frontline policing which I enjoy,” as he told the court.

Early on the Alice Springs IRT had been called Cordon and Contain Team, pretty well limited to looking after a crime scene until the TRG arrives from Darwin.

BAUWENS: While I was in Darwin I could see that incidents which happened, they had a capability which to deal with those situations. For instance, like TRG, we deal with anything from high-risk to social order to search and rescue – to anything – siege situations … developed through a general duties’ environment. In my experience, my first four years in Alice Springs obviously I saw several situations that could have been handled, you know, in a better manner or the members there could have provided a better response and a better trained response. I just basically wanted to get out of the Southern Command the same sort of response that the Northern Command enjoy or deserve, assist the members and the people of the community. To provide a better trained response than existed previously.

Counsel Assisting Patrick COLERIDGE: Is it fair to say that what you saw was, look, people were mucking in, most of the time it was going okay, but that without training, planning and structure, there was a risk that things could go wrong?

BAUWENS: Yes, correct.

COLERIDGE: And so that was prior to your return to Alice Springs that that capability was introduced into the team, was it?

BAUWENS: That’s correct. The first plan is a containment plan – cordon and containment. The second plan is an IEA component. It does get a little bit confusing because you can actually formulate an IEA on the way to the situation because you can get … you hear on the radio, they go, “Hey, some really bad stuff is happening in this place, we need to go in there straight away.”

COLERIDGE: I suppose the point I’m making is it wasn’t as if your substantive role became the OIC of the IRT. That was something that you were expected to do in addition to your ordinary responsibilities as custody sergeant, is that right?

BAUWENS: That’s correct.

COLERIDGE: Would you agree that it really does make the job much harder for both the OIC and for the members of the IRT if they’re not designated members of the team like that and are expected to balance their responsibilities with other responsibilities as general duties police officers or so on?

BAUWENS: Yeah, definitely it’s hard for the organiser or the OIC of the section to implement any sort of changes or training. For the members it was also difficult because they didn’t get the opportunity to attend training as much as they wished. Yeah, the limitations of the frontline policing Alice Springs was definitely a massive indicator. I made several recommendations regarding equipment, training and future directions of the team for it to maintain a viable response with southern command. But I also, the memos were not only to request things. They were also to open a line of communication with the executive to tell them what we are, who we are, what we do and what they can expect of us. Because quite often it was a case where they wouldn’t know. So I tried to get them involved in the section which those memos were talked about. And it would also be backed up with an invitation to come look at the training, look at our equipment, see what we do because I’m not too sure if we’re going to touch on it here but I think our section’s been misrepresented pretty badly.

COLERIDGE: Could I ask you just on the question of the relationship between the IRT and police executive, did it surprise you that a tactical team, a “paramilitary team” that had been operating since around 2005, was still relatively unknown to police executive 10, 15 years later?

BAUWENS: Yes. Chain of command in the police force changes so often. Promotions happen and people change positions. So a lot of information is not being relayed or forwarded on and what’s required. Tactical policing, it’s not a popular thing amongst the executive. I had to go to the Deputy Commissioner and just tell him the situation was getting out of hand and something had to be done, and that’s going over a lot of people’s heads to do that … From a period of 2015 to 2017 the section really failed in – yes, in many aspects of training and equipment.

COLERIDGE: Between 2017 and 2019, accepting that I am sure there were improvements, do you think that the IRT could still have improved its command structure?

BAUWENS: It definitely needed more human resources to facilitate that.

COLERIDGE: I mean, first you’ve got to employ someone to be the 2IC before you can have a meaningful command structure, is that right?

BAUWENS: You need the time to allocate a 2IC. You need to train and that would be as part of a full-time section or having – considering all the time allocated to develop 2ICs for that role.

COLERIDGE: Given what we know about some of the things that went wrong on 9 November 2019 (the day Mr Walker was killed), miscommunication, different understandings of what the mission was, do you think that a more formal command structure or a clearer command structure would have assisted to prevent things like miscommunication?

BAUWENS: Yes, command and communication and structure are vital for anything, any section and TRG exactly is your prime example.

COLERIDGE: Do you think that that was something that was needed on the 9th? Do you think that that was a bit of a missing link in this case?

BAUWENS: Yes, I do. I think the level of communication and command was – yeah, it was – I think played a major factor. The section as I saw it the workload was picking up. It was hard to maintain it as a part-time section. I was getting tired. I was doing two jobs at once so I’d been doing it for five years and a lot of it was on my own time. It needed to become a full-time section. I mean … the TRG, I think, do something like to three to four months of full-time training when people start and then there’s pretty consistent training thereafter.

COLERIDGE: Did you think that the IRT needed to significantly increase the amount it was trained?

BAUWENS: Yes.

COLERIDGE: The TRG training is quite intense and as you mentioned it goes for six months or so of training and it’s reinforced on a weekly to daily basis.

BAUWENS: IRT was once every five weeks and that was to train in our core function which was to perform at CPT role which is support function. So our training primarily was around that because that was – and obviously cordon and containment which was green role so we did train in that. So we train in our primary role and we didn’t really have much training time for anything else.

COLERIDGE: Are you aware … now that Mr Rolfe had been the subject of a number of complaints regarding his use of force?

BAUWENS: I don’t recall at that time that I was aware. My knowledge of complaints that they [are] between the member and the Disciplinary Board and I think they’re actually told it’s not to discuss it with anybody. So I wasn’t aware that he had any serious breaches of discipline being investigated for at that stage from my memory now.

COLERIDGE: I mean, you were his patrol sergeant. You were the patrol sergeant for patrol group 5, weren’t you?

BAUWENS: I was patrol group 1 predominately and towards the end, I think we might have went to 5.

ABOVE: Evidence from body worn camera of police intervention at Araluen Park presented by Dr Dwyer. Mr Rolfe: Yeah, it’s completely unprofessional and I have no excuse for that. Dr Dwyer: They were swinging haymakers and not connecting because they were drunk and staggering? Mr Rolfe: Well, they were fighting. Dr Dwyer: Do you think, looking back on that, you could have used verbal commands instead of moving to physical force? Mr Rolfe: That situation was resolved, again, extremely efficiently and quickly, as was encouraged in Alice Springs, to resolve situations as fast as possible. And it may not look good, but pushing two men onto soft grass is a very low level use of force and it can be confronting for people who are not used to confronting violence on a daily basis.

COLERIDGE:  Alice Springs is a relatively small police station. Did you not get a sense of who has a reputation for using force?

BAUWENS: There’s lots of reputations in the police force. No, I wasn’t aware of that, but we have reputations of people who have higher arrest rates than others. And they go hand in hand quite often.

COLERIDGE: Were you aware of it at the time that his view was that people, including the executive, were talking about Mr Rolfe’s uses of force?

BAUWENS: No, I wasn’t aware of that.

Mr Coleridge referred to an event that led to Mr Rolfe being charged in court:

COLERIDGE: Judge Borchers made very strongly worded findings about Zach Rolfe?

BAUWENS: He made reference to – that his evidence was, I think different from other police officers. I’m not 100 percent of what he said.

COLERIDGE: It wasn’t just a reference, was it? He found that Mr Rolfe had assaulted [name of victim]. Were you aware of that?

BAUWENS: No, I don’t think that was the gist of it.

COLERIDGE: Okay. Were you aware that he’d found that Mr Rolfe had been dishonest and had given false evidence to the court in order to conceal his assault?

BAUWENS: I didn’t really take much heed about that court case. I know people involved, and I knew it was – the incident was chaotic, as half the people had been sprayed. And to me it was pretty much a volatile situation, and I knew there was conflicting reports of what had happened in there, which in those circumstances is I think accepted. It’s – people do have given reports, but yeah. I really don’t know the exact details of that case.

COLERIDGE: You might think that the one person who did know the details was the judge who heard the evidence in the hearing?

BAUWENS: He was definitely had more knowledge than I would, yes.

COLERIDGE: Would those strongly-worded findings not have concerned you? A very experienced judicial officer not just saying that they have a doubt about someone’s honesty, but positively finding that they were dishonest?

BAUWENS: Well, if that had been the case, then I think some probably more serious repercussions would have occurred, and they’re above my pay scales to consider.

Mr Coleridge, addressing the Coroner, said: “I’ll read the message, your Honour. On 30 July 2019, Zachary Rolfe sent a message in which he described the role of the IRT in this way: “We have a small team in Alice, IRT, Immediate Response Team. We’re not fulltime, just get called up from GDs [General Duties] for high-risk jobs. Sweet gig. Just get to do cowboy stuff with no rules.”

Mr Colderidge summarised red flags and asked Sgt Bauwens: “[One,] There had been a number of complaints about unjustified use of force. Two, that there was a perception among people within the Alice Springs police station … that Mr Rolfe was developing a bit of a reputation for the use of force. Three, a very experienced judicial officer had made positive findings that he’d used force unlawfully. Four, a very experienced judicial officer had made positive findings that he had lied to conceal that use of force. Five, there was an ongoing criminal investigation by Southern Crime Command into potential allegations of perjury. And six, that all of that was occurring against the backdrop of the decline in Mr Rolfe’s mental health and his transition onto medication. If you had known those things, very serious consideration would have been given, either by you or by someone up the chain, as to whether Mr Rolfe needed to be stood down from the IRT?

BAUWENS: That’s – it’s information obviously I know I’ve said, I haven’t had. I worked with Zach on many, many deployments and that’s how I judged Zach and I judged his behaviour, I judged his attitude. Those things described, some of them, I remember the court case. I know very little of the other ones. But it would be cause for a review or from someone, if they wanted to correlate all that information all in one go and make a decision. I daresay, if we did the same thing for every person in the police force, they may even be in a similar position. So the answer to your question is, everything needs to be reviewed and a decision needs to be made on those reviews.

Andrew Boe, appearing for the Walker, Lane and Robertson families, also questioned Sgt Bauwens about the effect, if any, of Mr Rolfe’s court penalty on his recruitment to the IRT.

MR BOE: Now, why do you say that you – that there was no obligation for a member of your team to tell you about those findings, given that that is the very sort of operational task he is likely to be undertaking if deployed?

BAUWENS: If he was to tell me he’s been involved in assaults investigations and – I would take it on board, but a judge’s comments, I would – would not see it as a – as a performance indicator as part of the section.

COLERIDGE: Okay. But the review didn’t occur in this case because you didn’t know?

BAUWENS: No, I didn’t know those things. I only had what I dealt with, with Zach. He wasn’t on my patrol group. I had – he was one of my more respected operatives in IRT, reliable. I worked with his closely on many, many occasions. He demonstrated integrity and professionalism in front of me.

Mr Boe questioned Sgt Bauwens about cultural training of IRT officers deployed to bush communities.

BOE: When we were going through the criteria as selections for an IRT, it did not include anywhere the cross-cultural capacity of an applicant. Do you accept that?

BAUWENS: Cross – that wasn’t – no, that’s correct.

BOE: That’s not a criteria as far you see it?

BAUWENS: No.

BOE: It was not a criteria as to which applicants had prior experience in these environments. Correct?

BAUWENS: I believe it wasn’t. No, it may have been spoken about in the interview, but it wasn’t on the paperwork and I have no knowledge of that. I can’t recall.

BOE: As far as you’re concerned, that was unimportant. Is that fair?

BAUWENS: No, that’s not the correct statement. Nothing – it’s not unimportant, it was just …

BOE: It was not part of any of the criteria you gave in your interview with Carter, nor in your evidence-in-chief today. Is that fair?

BAUWENS: That’s correct. It wasn’t the criteria listed of what we were part of the section.

BOE: And it was not part of the criteria when I explored it earlier. Is that fair?

BAUWENS: Yeah, that’s correct.

BOE: And then you’ve accepted that a high proportion of the targets are Indigenous people in these communities. Fair?

BAUWENS: Well, that’s correct, yes.

BOE: I suggest to you that if there is any IRT or the like being deployed in Indigenous communities that it should be a criteria that they have, if not experience, specialist training in understanding the environment into which they are being sent?

BAUWENS: Well, I’m deploying general duties police officers, so they’ve all had experience with Aboriginals and communities. So that’s the aspect I believe they form. This is the skills enhancement –

BOE: Are you saying that you proceed on the assumption that those applying in the IRT, because they’re general duties police officers, would have the appropriate experience and understanding of those communities?

BAUWENS: They would definitely have a knowledge, yes.

BOE: And how would they have that knowledge if they’ve never been deployed there?

BAUWENS: Well, deployed as in through their general duties policing?

BOE: Yes?

BAUWENS: Well, most of the – I wasn’t aware of who’s been deployed or which bush relief each particular member has been – has conducted, but you don’t get to apply for an IRT unless you have had a previous level of experience in general duties. And I would hope that is where you would achieve that level of knowledge.

BOE: Sergeant, as a lawyer acting for a family who lives in that community, I would suggest to you that it is gobsmacking to hear that you are making an assumption about a critical criteria for police entry into these areas; that you don’t even know whether or not they have any previous experience in these communities?

BAUWENS: That’s the evidence I’m presenting. They have – I rely on the experience they have as police officers, the knowledge they have learned as police officers.

BOE: Did you ever ask them? Did you ever ask them whether or not they had been deployed in these communities?

BAUWENS: I cannot recall if there were any questions directly related to that, no.

BOE: Well, I’m suggesting to you that you’re being quite deflective, that it was never in your mindset to care whether or not they had ever been deployed?

BAUWENS: That’s something I can’t comment on.

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