The inquest into the police shooting death of 19-year-old Kumanjayi Walker opened on Monday with testimony from senior elders and community members urging action to ensure his death is not in vain.
The inquest, which is set for the next three months, will probe the events surrounding Walker’s death on 9 November 2019 in the remote community of Yuendumu after he was shot three times by Northern Territory police Const Zachery Rolfe during an attempted arrest.
A jury found Rolfe not guilty of murder and two alternative charges on 11 March this year after a six-week trial in the NT supreme court.
Coroner Elisabeth Armitage, opened by paying her respects to the traditional owners saying that despite the trial and intense media interest there was still more to learn.
“You might wonder if there is anything more to say but during this inquest I am inviting everyone to dig a little deeper and listen a little longer,” she said.
“I think there is more we can learn from, and I think there is more to learn about this story,” she said.
Armitage said the inquest would examine the events of 9 November, police training, procedures, guidelines around use of force as well as how the Australian law works with and against traditional law such as Warlpiri law, protocols and customs.
“After he was shot, Kumanjayi was dragged past his family and taken to the police station. The police and Kumanjayi were locked inside and the family and wider community were locked outside,” she said.
The coroner said she wanted to gain an understanding of what happened from the perspective of the family and the Yuendumu community through the next several months.
“What did it sound and feel like for Kumanjayi Walker’s family when they heard those three shots?
“We will never know because they [police] did not have body-worn cameras,” Armitage said.
Robin Granites Japanangka told the inquest of the ongoing distress and pain that Walker’s death caused the family and the community.
He offered a direct invitation to Armitage to visit Yuendumu and hear from elders and community on their country during the inquest.
“Come and sit with Walripi elders, talk to us,” he said.
“We invite you to come out and be part of our culture and law, we hope you accept our invitation and listen to what we have to say,” Granites said.
Armitage had planned for the inquest to start at Yuendumu, but the two-day sitting was cancelled last month amid rising concerns within the community.
She said she would work with the community to ensure her visit would be at an appropriate time.
The Warlpiri elder told the inquest that he hoped the community would be heard throughout the inquiry and that action must follow the coroner’s findings and recommendations.
“Let’s have the courage to ask the serious questions of how Kumanjayi died. We have nothing to hide – all we have is our truth,” Granites told the inquest.
“This is why this inquest is so important, the pain we feel is real, the past has led us here … We feel for us to move forward there cannot be another injustice,” he said.
Ned Jampijinpa Hargraves, a Warlpiri elder told the coroner that guns have no place in remote community policing and renewed his calls that officers be stripped of their weapons.
He said the shooting had brought back painful memories of brutal massacres at the hands of police including the Coniston massacre in 1928.
He said the community wants to work with the police to prevent similar incidents and ensure Yuendumu is safe.
“Somewhere along the line, we must find the answer, we must work together to make the community safe for our children to live,” he said.
Samara Fernandez-Brown, Walker’s cousin, said the shooting has deeply traumatised the community and they continue to struggle to make sense of what happened.
“You cannot begin to understand how deeply his loss sits in our bodies, how it tears our spirit apart. It will stay for generations to come,” Fernandez-Brown said.
She said she hoped that the community would be heard throughout the inquest.
“We have an opportunity before us to actually change, to forge a better way. We have an obligation and a responsibility to listen to our truths, not just what you want to hear.”