The full, shocking truth about the death of Kwementyaye Briscoe in Alice Springs has been exposed by a two-week coronial investigation.
Kwementyaye was an Anmatjere man, and his death is a tragic story of police brutality, criminal neglect and systemic racism.
Kwementyaye was drinking with some of his friends in Alice Springs on the night of January 4 when police arrived. He tried to run away, but he was wrestled to the ground and arrested. He had committed no crime but he was taken into “protective custody”. This is supposedly designed to assist people who are posing a threat to themselves or others. But Kwementyaye posed no threat to anyone. All that was being “protected” by taking him off the streets were racist sensibilities in Alice Springs.
Kwementyaye had been taken into protective custody 31 times before this. Police harassment two weeks earlier had left him with a nasty cut above his eye. As family spokesperson Patricia Morton-Thomas told the inquest, “If he was running away, I would suggest he was scared”.
In the police van, Kwementyaye, facing another long night in the lock up, reportedly finished the better part of a 750ml bottle of rum that his friend had hidden, taking his blood alcohol level to 0.35 and leaving him nearly entirely incapacitated.
CCTV footage played during the inquest shows the disgusting treatment he received inside the watch house. After becoming agitated in a holding cell, he collapsed while being escorted to the processing counter. He was left lying on the ground, unassisted for seven minutes, with police stepping over him like a pile of dirty clothes.
During this time, police fingerprinted Kwementyaye’s friends, though they had committed no crime.
Eventually, with assistance, Kwementyaye staggered into a seat. He tried to stand twice and was pushed back down into his seat by his arresting officer, Constable Evans. The third time he rose, Evans grabbed him and flung him to the ground, smashing his head against the counter.
Evans claimed that Kwementyaye had “clenched his fist”. But the CCTV footage shows he was not violent.
Kwementyaye slumped on the ground, bleeding above his eye. He was unable to stand and appeared to be out cold. After kneeing him in the back, Evans and other police officer picked Kwementyaye up by his limbs, carried him into a cell and dumped him face down on a mattress. After some small convulsions Kwementyaye slumped in a terribly uncomfortable position until he was found dead approximately three hours later.
Police moved quickly to clean up Kwementyaye’s blood on the floor, but not from his face—indeed they provided him with no medical attention. There were occasional “cell checks” for the first hour, but no physical check.
At one point, an officer suggested Kwementyaye be taken to hospital, but this was dismissed because he “might run away”. Other Aboriginal people in the cells that night pleaded with police to assist Kwementyaye and were ignored.
At 11pm Probationary Constable David O’Keefe took responsibility for Kwementyaye, promising to make regular observations. But O’Keefe did not make a single cell check. Instead, he surfed the internet and listened to his Ipod. More than two hours later, after the ambulance was finally called, O’Keefe lied to the ambulance officers, saying he’d conducted regular checks.
Forensic Physician Morris O’Dell told the inquest, “Kwementyaye’s situation was an evolving medical emergency that went unrecognised, and a timely response may well have prevented his death”.
Pathologist Peter Sinton, who undertook the official autopsy, argued that Kwementyaye died of acute alcohol toxicity. But Dr Johann de Flou, a forensic pathologist engaged who gave a second opinion, believes it more likely Kwenentyaye died from “positional asphyxia”—he died because he was in a position where he could not breathe.
Cedric Trigger died face down in the Alice Springs watch house four years ago. Superintendent Jones told the Inquiry that since then, she had repeatedly raised the need to ensure that senior police were present at every shift to take responsibility for monitoring all prisoners. Her requests were met with “dumb insolence to outright refusal”.
Some police officers involved in the Briscoe affair broke down in court, admitted fault and promised this would never happen again. Senior police apologised to the Briscoe family.
But they can’t be allowed to get away with it. Police must be charged. Constable Evans is guilty of assault. But the campaign should also push for negligent manslaughter charges on police who treated Kwementyeye’s life with such complete disregard.
Patricia Morton-Thomas put out a joint statement with the Stop the Intervention Collective Sydney, calling for charges to be laid: “If my nephew had not been taken into police custody, he would be alive today…. Aboriginal people are sitting in jail for things far less serious than what [Evans] did to my young fella.”