Ms Dhu’s family’s fight for prosecutions
For the first time since his niece died in police custody in 2014, Shaun Harris is taking a break.
The past month has taken its toll on all of Ms Dhu’s family – a coronial inquest into her death, and the pain of both her birthday on Boxing Day and the beginning of a new year without her.
From the moment the 22-year-old Aboriginal woman died in police custody in the West Australian suburb of South Hedland, Harris and his family began a tireless and powerful campaign for justice, eventually spurring a coronial inquest and the release of the CCTV footage that documented Ms Dhu’s final days in harrowing detail.
Now, after two-and-a-half years of fighting for justice, it’s time to rest. But only briefly.
“My niece has been able to show the world and speak for herself through that footage. That’s helped her in the battle for justice,” Harris tells The Saturday Paper.
“And this is the first time I’ve had any sort of break in the last two-and-a-half years. We’re all just trying to recharge our batteries.”
Ms Dhu died on August 4, 2014, from staphylococcal septicaemia and pneumonia stemming from an infected broken rib suffered earlier that year in a domestic violence incident, the coroner found.
She had been held in police custody for the previous two days over unpaid fines, and complained multiple times of intense pain, but was largely dismissed by police and health professionals as “feigning” it and being a “junkie”.
The coroner’s 165-page report outlines in excruciating detail the dismissive and condescending treatment of Ms Dhu. The recently released CCTV footage shows her being treated in inhumane and uncaring ways by police while “clearly completely incapacitated”.
Ms Dhu was twice taken to hospital and twice returned to the police lock-up, ruled fit for police custody despite the absence of basic checks such as the taking of her temperature. The third time she was taken to the nearby hospital she would not return.
The report was released on December 16 last year, and caught the attention of much of the nation. The subsequent outcry and public protests were curtailed somewhat by the fast-approaching Christmas holidays and, although prominently featured in the media following the inquest, it quickly faded from attention.
The inquest also failed to provide the justice for which Ms Dhu’s family had been campaigning. Despite its highly critical portrayal of police malpractice and cruel behaviour, the coroner did not recommend any further action be taken against those involved in her death, and the accompanying set of recommendations largely mirror those set out by the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody more than 25 years ago.
“I came here hoping for justice,” Ms Dhu’s mother, Della Roe, said after the report was released. “And I still haven’t got it.”
So the battle will go on.
After the brief respite following the inquest, Ms Dhu’s family will be returning to their campaign for justice.
“We’re going to kick things off again and step it up a level,” Harris tells The Saturday Paper.
“We’ve had to step it up so many levels already, but we’re going to have to step it up again simply due to the lack of recommendations for accountability.”
This idea is at the heart of the family’s campaign: justice is synonymous with accountability, and no progress will be made if those responsible for deaths in custody are not held to account.
Ms Dhu – and her family – cannot rest until those who treated her in the “inhumane and unprofessional” way in her final hours are made responsible for their behaviour.
“We’ve got this campaign, this needless and senseless campaign, so that she can at least rest in some sort of peace,” Harris says.
“We want justice for her and there’s never going to be any justice if there isn’t accountability.”
The family’s campaign initially centred on forcing the coronial inquest and releasing the CCTV footage, and while some hoped this may bring an end to their fight, Harris says he was unsurprised that it was just the beginning.
“Because of what history has proven and still shows, I never really set my expectations too high when it came to the findings,” he says.
Ms Dhu’s family will soon be consulting lawyers again to map a path forward, while Harris will also intensify his focus on a worldwide campaign for justice, connecting with other global movements such as Black Lives Matter in the United States.
“Our fight for justice involves all the parties that were involved with my niece’s passing – the perpetrator of the broken rib, the Western Australian police and the Western Australian Country Health Service,” Harris says.
“Two of the police officers have been promoted; they’ve been rewarded for being involved with the [death] of my niece. We want change and accountability.
“The whole world wants accountability and the only people that do not are the ones who are involved with it.”
A central goal of Harris’s campaign is ensuring his niece’s death ultimately serves the purpose of preventing such deaths from happening in future.
“It’s just so hard, but it’s vital to keep constantly putting the information out there and keeping the issue fresh in people’s minds,” he says.
“It makes it harder for them to forget what is going on and what the reality really is.”
While the use of social media to keep the case in the national consciousness has proved despairing at times for Harris, he says it’s an important tool in the campaign for change.
“The fact we can do so much with the press of a button, that helps massively with all of our issues,” he says.
“Our elders and ancestors didn’t have this technology back in the day, so that’s part of our responsibility today to help tap in and manipulate social media in the broader community. We’ve had to embrace it. It’s very hard but we’ve just had to do what we needed to do.”
Harris spends hours every day monitoring the Facebook and Twitter pages of the “Justice For Ms Dhu” campaign, bringing with it the inevitable trolling and much personal pain.
“We have racist trolls, and we’ve been dealing with them ever since my niece’s body was still warm, on a daily basis,” he says.
“They do it in the hope that they will wear us down and we will have nothing left to fight with. But it only makes us more determined, and we will not stop.”
As Harris braces to return to the front line of this fight, the seemingly endless quest for justice goes on.
“I set out for justice for my niece and I started this campaign for that,” Harris says. “All the perpetrators and parties involved need to be held accountable, and I won’t stop until we get at least one.
It’s about unity and solidarity: that’s the only way we can all move forward as a country.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 28, 2017 as "Pursuit of justice". Subscribe here.