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Kumanjayi Walker spent long stretches in troubled Don Dale detention centre, inquest hears | Northern Territory


Kumanjayi Walker spent long stretches of time in the notorious Don Dale detention centre, the coronial inquest into the police shooting death of the 19-year-old has heard.

The three-month-long inquest is examining the events surrounding his death on 9 November 2019 in the remote Northern Territory community of Yuendumu, after he was shot three times by police officer Const Zachery Rolfe during an attempted arrest.

A jury found Rolfe not guilty of murder and two alternative charges earlier this year after a six-week trial in the NT supreme court in Darwin.

NT coroner Elisabeth Armitage is examining the circumstances of Walker’s death, the deployment of Rolfe’s tactical police unit, the authorities’ policies and training around weapons and the use of force.

On Tuesday, counsel assisting the coroner, Dr Peggy Dwyer, continued her opening address detailing Walker’s early experiences, problems at school, hearing loss and cognitive disability.

She said Walker had been detained on a number of occasions during the scope of the 2017 royal commission into Don Dale. The inquest was told Walker spent time at the facility between 2014 and 2019, beginning during his early teens, mainly for property offences and breaching bail or court orders.

“We know that Kumanjayi spent time in the detention centre during a period where the royal commission was extremely critical of the treatment of vulnerable children in custody, including people like Kumanjayi,” Dwyer said.

Dwyer said in her opening that Walker had struggled in school, had trouble regulating his emotions and was extremely sensitive to his environment – all indicators of fetal alcohol syndrome, according to a support worker who worked with Walker.

Counsels assisting the coroner Peggy Dwyer and Patrick Coleridge arrive for the inquest into the death of Kumanjayi Walker at the Alice Springs local court.
Counsels assisting the coroner Peggy Dwyer and Patrick Coleridge arrive for the inquest into the death of Kumanjayi Walker at the Alice Springs local court. Photograph: Aaron Bunch/AAP

Dwyer read from the royal commission’s report into Don Dale which said the facility was far below acceptable international and Australian human rights guidelines with children being restrained, teargassed, and spit hoods used on children as young as 12.

“It may be helpful for the state to remember the ways in which he was treated by the state and the ways in which we can learn from that and try to do better,” Dwyer said.

The inquest was told there were some early intervention attempts by community leaders and the Department of Children’s and Communities to divert Walker away from custody and address drug and alcohol issues, with residential programs such as BushMob in the NT and SevGen in Queensland.

The inquest was told young Walker’s behaviour settled and that he “thrived” and was actively engaged in the program which included cultural activities, camping, sport and horse riding.

In her opening address, Dwyer told the inquest that nursing staff had been withdrawn on the day of the shooting due to antisocial behaviour and recent break-ins at the community’s nursing accommodations, and that police in Yuendumu were fatigued and under-resourced.

She said this led authorities to call in immediate response team (IRT) tactical police officers to offer assistance and to arrest Walker, who was alleged to have threatened local police with an axe, removed his electronic ankle monitor and breached bail conditions.

The inquest was told the IRT officers had little to no experience working in remote communities or in remote policing and that the officers took a number of weapons into the community.

The inquest was shown several minutes of body-worn camera footage depicting the IRT officers entering a home during the search, in which a baby can be heard crying.

A community member outside the home asks why the officer is carrying a gun and an officer responded: “Somebody shouldn’t run at police with an axe, aye?”

Shortly afterwards Rolfe shot Walker in the back during a struggle, in which Walker had injured Rolfe in the shoulder with a small pair of scissors.

Dwyer detailed efforts by Rolfe and the attending officer to assist Walker after he was shot and taken to the police station.

Distraught family and community members gathered outside the station in the aftermath of the shooting.

“We can only imagine the level of anxiety and stress and fear that the community members were experiencing at that stage,” Dwyer said.

On Monday the inquest heard testimony from the community elders calling for remote officers to be stripped of their weapons and urging action and change in response to the shooting.

The coronial inquiry is expected to hear from about 80 witnesses, including community leaders, support workers who knew Walker as well as from Rolfe and officers involved in the arrest.

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