Lessons from a decade as an Aboriginal cop
Content warning: this piece contains the names of Aboriginal people who are deceased.
I spent 10 years as a police officer, working in Queensland. My book, Black and Blue, recounts my time in the police as an Aboriginal woman, and my life as a single parent of three brilliant and amazing children. It also documents the racism I was subjected to throughout my career but also everything that led up to that point.
I write the way I speak. So, I hope readers feel I’m sitting beside them having a yarn and that this will resonate with my people too, as we are the best storytellers. We were told stories of the past by our ancestors, and the writing of Black and Blue is me encapsulating my memories. Prior to the end of my career, I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety and depression and, as a result, I lost a lot of my memory. Trauma amnesia. I wanted to capture and record memories I did have and, before too long, I had a book worth of memories.
Since publication, I’ve frequently been asked, “If you feared police so much, why did you join?” The truth is I joined to eradicate the immense fear that Aboriginal people, including me, have of the police – but mainly for my children. I wanted to stop the cycle of fear and mistrust that my family feels.
But after serving just a short time, I realised these fears were well and truly justified. I could have, and probably should have, quit long before I was medically discharged unfit for duties. But I was not a quitter, and I had the old saviour mentality. I wanted to make change.
On almost every shift as a Queensland police officer, when I worked with a partner I hadn’t before, within the first few minutes of being seated alongside them in a police vehicle, or as we were kitting up our utility belts and loading our firearms, I had to tell them, “I am Aboriginal, and I do not want to hear any racial slurs about my people.”
Every day I felt as though I needed to justify my existence in the very white and male-dominated institution.
White organisations are not culturally safe places for Aboriginal people. We feel that we don’t belong and therefore must put in more effort just to prove our capabilities and competency. Years ago, when my children worked in predominantly white organisations, they would call me in tears of anxiety, and I would have to talk to them until they got through the front door. It’s been quoted before: “This is not normal, but it’s our normal”.
After joining the Queensland Police Service (QPS), I found out, quickly, that police racially profile. If you are black or brown, the likelihood of being intercepted or detained and searched is much higher than it is for a white person. Police would drive by homes where Aboriginal families lived, preying on their next intercept. If you want to understand the high recidivism rate for Aboriginal people, and the over-representation of Aboriginal people in the justice system, you need to start by looking at police behaviour such as this.
I was in the job when there was an Aboriginal death in custody in 2004 on Palm Island, just off the coast of northern Queensland, which was followed by the infamous riots on the island in response to this violent loss of life. This was triggering for me. As much as I was feeling empathy for the family who had just lost their son, and the community, it also reminded me of how my own family had been affected by a death in police custody.
Soon, though, I was forced into defensive mode. All the other police in the district, and across Queensland, were banding around the officers at the centre of the unnecessary and tragic death of an Aboriginal man whose only crime was to sing “Who let the dogs out” as a police car drove past him on that fateful night. I became defensive of my people and, in particular, of the young man’s family and the Palm Island community.
In 1987, my Uncle Arthur Moffatt, a Gunai/Kurnai man, caught a train from Morwell in Victoria’s Latrobe Valley. He was intending to get off at the next station, Moe, but instead Uncle Arthur fell asleep and missed his stop. When he woke, he was vocal about his disappointment – a normal reaction, one would say. But police were called and were waiting for him at Warragul station.
Uncle Arthur’s death was one of the 99 deaths that became part of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (RCIADIC). During the coronial inquest, police stated they arrested him for public drunkenness – they said they could smell alcohol on his breath and that he exhibited signs of intoxication – and therefore he was placed in the cells, where he died. An autopsy revealed that while there was alcohol in his blood, Uncle Arthur died from hypoglycaemia, the symptoms of which appear similar to intoxication.
In the past month, there have been five Aboriginal deaths in custody. Three in New South Wales, one in Victoria. Just last weekend, a 45-year-old Aboriginal man, who had been a prisoner at Perth’s Casuarina jail, died while in intensive care. This month marks 30 years since the RCIADIC recommendations were handed down in 1991. Of the 339 recommendations, most have not been implemented. The ones that were have long been defunded by the government.
We, as Aboriginal people, are almost always grieving and fighting for justice. First the families and communities are faced with the untimely deaths of their loved ones in the most atrocious circumstances. Then comes the beginning of coronial inquests of Aboriginal people who have died in custody. It is relentless.
The grassroots Dhadjowa Foundation has recently been set up to support families through this process by one of the strongest black women I have ever encountered, Apryl Day. Her mother, the late Tanya Day, died in police custody in 2017, in circumstances very similar to Uncle Arthur’s.
Dhadjowa’s support is vital because these inquests themselves are gruelling; they can stretch out for weeks. Families are triggered and retraumatised. They have to sit through detailed accounts, and in some cases footage, of the moment their loved one took their last breath. But we fight on, for justice – to make police and correctional officers accountable for the deaths because to date nobody has ever been made accountable for their actions that caused these deaths.
I don’t specifically look at the coronial inquest process in Black and Blue. My focus is what leads up to these tragic events – something I’ve come to understand through the racism and bullying I was subjected to while I was a police officer. If the police can treat one of their own this way, you can only imagine how they treat Aboriginal people in the community.
I know I should have spoken up more often than I did, and for this I was complicit. But I knew that complaints I did raise were to no avail. Police are a protected species.
I don’t have the answers to how police can change, or if this is even possible, but I know that police were designed by the colonisers, for the colonisers.
As Aboriginal people, the oldest living culture in the world, the First Nations of this country, the traditional owners, we have our customary law/lore that we used prior to colonisation. We still practise this and there have not been any deaths in our custody.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 10, 2021 as "Lessons from a decade as an Aboriginal cop".
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