Editorial
Brute force

The text messages weren’t allowed to be read at the trial where Zachary Rolfe was found not guilty of murdering Kumanjayi Walker. They were deemed prejudicial.

On Monday, Rolfe’s lawyers argued again that they should not be heard at the inquest into Walker’s death. They argued that the coroner should not consider whether systemic racism was a factor in the killing. Earlier, they argued she should dismiss herself because she had seen unredacted evidence.

In one message, Rolfe writes: “Just don’t get why all this work has got me to the point where it’s my job to look after neanderthals who drink too much alcohol haha.” In another, he writes: “No bra, just slightly annoying haha. Coons, man.” 

He boasts he has a “licence to towel up the locals” and that “I like it”. Referring to community policing, viewed as more sympathetic to the realities of life in remote communities, he writes: “Bush cops are fucking shit house.” Other police in the thread describe Indigenous people as “losers”, “grubby fucks” and “niggas”.

The first thing Rolfe said after he shot Walker was “It’s all good”. He meant this as a kind of defence: “He was stabbing me, he was stabbing me.” As another officer put handcuffs on Walker, he continued it like a mantra: “It’s all good. He’s got scissors in his hands. He was stabbing me. He was stabbing you.”

Rolfe shot Walker three times. For three days, he had watched footage of Walker waving an axe at police. He had accessed the tape 30 times. When Walker was killed, he was holding a pair of first-aid scissors.

Rolfe’s former fiancée has said he boasted that he was always first to get out his gun. She said he told her he wanted to get into the special forces. “I like being a soldier,” she recalls him saying. “It was good money, and they could go out and kill people.”

Rolfe’s former fiancée was also a police officer. In evidence published by the coroner, she said senior police frequently covered for Rolfe. One detective allegedly scratched Rolfe’s face to provide “justification” for Rolfe punching an Aboriginal man. Watch commanders, his former fiancée said, regularly got rid of reports claiming Rolfe used unjustified force. “I remember him saying words to the effect of ‘The watchies constantly fix up my jobs’. ”

The inquest will continue for three months. Northern Territory Police Force is at pains to say it is not an inquiry into the force as a whole. A lawyer for the police said, “It is important to note that the misimpression not be propagated that this modest number of offensive utterances by text messages be imputed to the whole police force.”

But how can it not be? How can it be ignored that it was a police officer who shot Kumanjayi Walker? How can it be ignored that he and other officers shared racist text messages, where they denigrated and dehumanised Indigenous people?

Coroners in other states have considered whether systemic racism was a factor in deaths in custody, but a finding has never been made. If that changes, it will take the country a step closer to reckoning with the ugly truth about race and policing in Australia.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 17, 2022 as "Brute force".

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