Eight years after the shocking deaths and police cover-ups of the killings of TJ Hickey in Redfern and Mulrunji Doomadgee on Palm Island, there are all the signs of another disgraceful death in custody and cover-up in Alice Springs.
On January 4, Terrance Daniel Briscoe was picked up by Alice Springs police at around 9.30pm for being intoxicated in public and taken into “protective custody”. By 2am, January 5, he was dead in a police cell. Terrance was a 28 year-old Anmatyerre man. His death is another tragic reminder that 20 years since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody the problem is worse than ever. The circumstances surrounding Terrance’s death are extremely suspicious.
The family was not informed until 6.30am on 5 January. They were initially told that Terrance had suffered head injuries due to a fall (although the police never bothered to get medical attention) and that he had died of a heart attack.
The time delays that characterised the police’s tainted investigation of Mulrunji Doomadgee’s death on Palm Island are just as much a feature of the Briscoe case. It was hours before the police notified the family of Terrance’s death and they’ve had weeks since then to make their story fit the facts. On Palm Island, the Coroner found police had lied during investigations and worked together to cook their stories.
Currently there is no criminal investigation and all witness statements of distressed family members and other vulnerable Aboriginal people for the Coroner’s report are being taken solely by the police.
The Royal Commission recommended among other things that the family of the deceased be able to inspect the scene of the death and to have an independent observer at the autopsy, as well as being able to engage an independent medical practitioner to be present at the post-mortem. It also recommended that each black death in custody be treated as if it may be a homicide. Of course, none of these things have happened.
Amnesty International, The Greens, Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation (ANTaR), and the National Police Accountability Network (of community and Aboriginal Legal Services) and the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress are all calling for an independent inquiry into Terrance’s death.
But almost two months since, the family has not even been given an interim autopsy report. There are CCTV cameras in every room of the Alice Springs police station. This footage must be released immediately.
While no official cause of death has been announced, the family has information that the autopsy shows that “asphyxia”, or suffocation, is the most likely cause of death. The testimony of two witnesses who were in custody with Mr Briscoe indicates that police may have suffocated him while roughing him up at the police station.
Oscar White told AAP that one officer pushed Mr Briscoe hard onto the ground and held him face down and sat on his back while other officers put their feet on him. He said Mr Briscoe struggled to breathe and a stitched cut above his eye was opened and began to bleed.
“They were really rough, and they were laughing at the same time,” White said. “They were making a mockery out of him. He was short of breath too, because he was actually really, really suffocated.”
Mr White stated that Mr Briscoe was like a rag when police picked him up off the floor and dragged him to his cell. One of the main recommendations of the Royal Commission was the decriminalisation of public drunkenness, but like most of its recommendations, this has been ignored and Aboriginal people continue to die in custody at the rate of one a month.
Immediately following the death, the Briscoe family began protesting. His cousin, Dean Briscoe, and supporters carried placards around the town against black deaths in custody. Two hundred people held vigil outside the Alice Springs courthouse.
In Sydney the Stop the Intervention Collective Sydney held a protest on February 5 outside NT Tourism offices to mark one month since Terrance’s death.
So far, no police officer has ever been convicted for the death of an Aboriginal person in prison. The Queensland Department of Public Prosecutions initially refused to charge Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley for the death of Mulrunji Doomadge. But mass protests at the obvious injustice forced the state government to press manslaughter charges.
Charging Chris Hurley was a first in Australian history. If Terrance and the Briscoe family are to get justice, we need to campaign to make sure it’s not the last.