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Indigenous woman’s death in police custody was avoidable, says lawyer

A coroner’s inquest has been told that Indigenous woman Julieka Dhu died while being held at Western Australia’s South Hedland police station because police dismissed her claims that she was feeling unwell.

The 22-year-old woman was held by the police station because she had more than $3,000 worth of unpaid fines, the ABC reported.

During the inquest, coroner Ilona O’Brien said that Dhu was diagnosed with “behavioural issues” and was discharged from care, returning back to police custody. But what Dhu was actually experiencing was advanced septic shock and pneumonia.

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“By the morning of 4 August, 2014, Ms. Dhu’s clinical state rapidly worsened, and although it was not appreciated by the police officers involved, some of whom believed that Ms. Dhu was feigning her illness, she was in an advanced state of septic shock and only hours from death,” O’Brien told the court.

CCTV footage was captured of Dhu vomiting in her jail cell and falling backwards, hitting her head on the floor, events that were not seen by police at the time it happened.

Not taking her claims seriously, which included things like complaining of her hands going blue and not being able to feel her legs, the police on duty instead thought her behaviour was merely related to drug withdrawals.

A nurse said that she heard police say they thought Dhu “was faking it” not long before she died.

The court was also told that Dhu was a victim of domestic abuse and needed protection and support, rather than being lost to the system.

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It was found during an autopsy that Dhu’s death was in part related to complications from a previous rib fracture.

The Indigenous population in Australia is just 2.3 per cent, but 18 per cent of men and 32 per cent of women who died in police custody in Australia between 1980 and 2000 were Indigenous, highlighting an endemic problem that needs to be addressed.

In 1987, a Royal Commission into Indigenous deaths in custody took place. It was found that 13 of the 18 deaths in custody in New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania may have been avoidable had authorities “not been negligent, uncaring or had followed procedures adequately”.

The Commission reported in 1991 that Indigenous people were eight times more likely to be jailed than non-Indigenous people, while 10 years after that report, the numbers increased, with Indigenous people 10 times more likely to face jail time than non-Indigenous people.

Western Australia, where Dhu died in custody, has the highest rate of Indigenous imprisonment, almost 20 times the rate of non-Indigenous people.

Lawyer George Newhouse, who is is representing the WA Deaths in Custody Watch Committee, said that if the recommendations that were made during the Royal Commission were implemented in Western Australia, “it’s quite likely Ms. Dhu would not have passed away”.

What do you think about Indigenous deaths in custody? Let us know.

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