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Three Years on From Ms Dhu's Tragic Death, Has Anything Changed?

We investigate whether Western Australian police have done anything to ensure 22-year-olds aren't left to die in their custody.

by Royce Kurmelovs
04 August 2017, 4:45am

Ms Dhu's mother, Della Roe. Photo by Charandev Singh.

Shaun Harris is tired. Ever since his niece died, he's been a spokesperson, a media representative, and a liaison for the legion of legal people his family have been dealing with. For three years he's crisscrossed the country to keep the pressure on the West Australian government—first to get the state government to fast-track the coronial inquest into the death of Ms Dhu, and now for actual reform.

"It's been a long journey," Harris says. "It feels like thirty years with the amount of campaigning I've had to do."

Today, August 4, is the anniversary. Three years to the day it happened. The day Ms Dhu, a 22-year-old Aboriginal woman, made her third and final trip from the South Hedland police lockup to the local hospital in the back of a police van.

From the moment she was locked up over a few unpaid fines, every officer tasked with looking after Ms Dhu had dismissed her as a "junkie." For two nights and three days she writhed in agony in her cell, complaining of pain in her side. Both the police and the doctors who examined her said she was just coming down and faking it.

Only she wasn't. Ms Dhu was in the final stages of blood poisoning and was about to die. Had anyone acted—from the doctors who treated her in the days leading up to her death to the police officers who monitored her condition—there's a chance she might still be alive today.

Ms Dhu's grandmother Carol Ror (left) and mother Della Roe (right)

And that's why Shaun Harris' fight is just getting started. It took him 14 months just to find out how his niece died, and another two years to get the case together against the people he holds responsible for her death. But there's a deadline looming. Beyond marking three years since Ms Dhu passed away, today is also the last day her family can file a lawsuit before the statute of limitations kicks in.

So the Harris family lawyers have been scrambling to get an application into the WA Supreme Court and the Federal Court. Their plan is to go after the state government for damages, and to push through a racial discrimination claim—to examine the aspects of Ms Dhu's death that were seemingly sidelined during the coronial inquest.

"The family want justice, they want accountability and they want law reform so it never happens again," George Newhouse, one of the family's lawyers, told VICE.

One central issue in this case is how Ms Dhu ended up locked up in the first place. At 19 years old, she'd been charged with several offences and racked up $3,600 [$2,700 USD] in fines. These were never paid. But the state didn't come for its money until three years later, on August 2, 2014. A warrant was issued, and police picked her up when they came looking for her abusive ex-partner. Once they booked her into lock up, the state of WA was kind enough to let Ms Dhu pay off the debt at a rate of $250 [$180 USD] a day.

This happens all the time. The same laws that put Ms Dhu in jail for being poor are still on the books today in West Australia. Anyone who has a few thousand in unpaid fines, and has a warrant of confinement issued against them, is sent straight to prison.

Both New South Wales and Victoria have mandatory, 24-hour notification systems to inform Aboriginal families a relative has been detained. Even three years after Ms Dhu's death, WA still has no such system. Sometimes, as a last resort, officers take it upon themselves to make a call. But if they can't get ahold of anyone, that's where it ends.

And since the Coroner handed down its findings and recommendations on the death of Ms Dhu in December 2016, the entire push for reform—to make sure this never happens again—has been caught in a holding pattern.

Trying to find out whether the government had any plans for change, I called up state treasurer and the Aboriginal Affairs minister Ben Wyatt. Around the time the Coroner's findings were released, Wyatt was demanding the officers and medical staff involved in Ms Dhu's death be sacked.

But with Labor now in power in WA, Wyatt hasn't said much on the issue. The people who were involved in Ms Dhu's death are still working, save for Rick Bond who left the police force in disgrace. Back in March, it was even revealed that Constable Christopher Matier, one of the officers who dealt with Ms Dhu during her final days, had been given a promotion in the time it took to get the inquest going.

Instead of getting any answers from Wyatt though, I was pointed to the office of Attorney-General John Quigley, because it was "a law reform issue." The AG's office were happy to help, but explained there'd been no "whole of government" response to the findings as the recommendations cut across health, police, corrections, and the Attorney-General's portfolios.

The Attorney-General's department says there is a plan in place to reform the Sentencing Act to "reduce the number of people imprisoned for fine default alone." Along with other reforms that would allow people to work off their fines, rather than having to serve jail time. A trial program is expected to begin by the end of 2017 and the state government is still trying to decide whether it wants to abolish the practice of jailing fine defaulters.

But I was told if I wanted to find out what the other departments were doing, I'd have to contact each separately. This is all very technical. Essentially what it means out on the street though is that...

Aboriginal people are still 14 times more likely to end up in prison, despite representing only a small portion of the overall population...

and are still being locked up for being poor.

"We've been campaigning so hard to stop the jailing of people for unpaid fines. Only a few months ago, a member of my family was picked up," Harris told VICE. "He had two younger children and he had to go to jail for eight days to cut out his unpaid fines. The family had to look after his two children. But if they weren't around, that's another two children going into the welfare system."

Lack of response to Ms Dhu's death also means Aboriginal people are still dying. In the time since the Coroner handed down its finding into Ms Dhu's death, an all-white jury acquitted the man who killed Elijah Doherty of all charges except for "dangerous driving occasioning death," which carries a three-year sentence.

But from the Doherty case has come the push to crowdfund a Copwatch program to train young Aboriginal people on their rights in dealing with police and how to record their interactions straight to the internet. It's something Shaun Harris has become directly involved in, because direct action seems like the only thing that seems to work.

"We want accountability and convictions," Harris says. "That's the only way my niece can get any sort of justice for herself and get some kind of peace."

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