When Kwementyaye Briscoe died in the Alice Springs police watch house in January it was a tragic event for him, his family and the community.
The coronial enquiry heard evidence that police procedure surrounding the death was inadequate and more appropriate action by several officers may have prevented the death of the extremely drunk man.
Counsel for the Northern Territory Police Association (NTPA) Lex Silvester addressed the enquiry and acknowledged the severity of the events: “That Kumanji’s death occurred in the circumstances then prevailing is a matter for profound regret. The loss of a child, brother, sister, relative or friend causes terrible grief the extent of which can only ever be known to those closest.
“In hindsight, an opportunity for medical intervention existed but was not availed. [It is now important] that proper inquiries and investigations are carried out to determine why that happened and to ensure steps are implemented to ensure it cannot happen again.”
However, much of Mr Silvester’s address to the Coroner, in its content and significance to the community, went well beyond the events of that night.
It painted a horrendous picture of the trauma, mayhem and tragedy alcohol is causing, and the intolerable burden that is placed on the police, every day.
It went further to urge a sweeping independent review of the take-away liquor trade in Alice Springs.
The Alice Springs News Online has been an important forum of discussion about better management and control of the use of alcohol. It is in this spirit that we publish excerpts from Mr Silvester’s submission, as follows.
That police were so engaged on this particular evening was not an isolated occurrence. Such work is repeated every day, very many times over, in every town and city of the Northern Territory, every day of the year.
It is a large part of policing. It consumes enormous cost and resources.
Probationary Constable Gray described conditions in the Alice Springs watchouse in the summer as “extremely difficult” because of the heat, the ambient smell, the odour of urine and feces, and the screaming and shouting of persons who are very drunk.
It is of such mind-numbing, de-sensitising and soul-destroying work as to be heroic. The community demands that some-one do this work, and it is Police who answer this call. But that it is necessary at all is because of the effects of alcohol, violence and the poverty and generational disadvantage on people, mainly Aboriginal. It has been going on for a long time. It is a stain on the character of the whole community of the Northern Territory.
It is seen at every level of the community and, dare we say it, government, as a problem incapable of solution, and it might be said that the broader Territory community has turned off, shut it out, wishing it would go away. It is in particular, a problem at the very heart of indigenous disadvantage.
It is a problem so deeply entrenched that it leaves a large proportion of our community locked permanently into a spiral of hopelessness and the rest of the community, which remains largely well-intentioned, overcome with a sense of futility and helplessness.
A reality is that there are no panacea of universally acceptable or practical application available that can produce short-term relief from this situation. On the best view one can take of it, Police will be involved in this way for generations to come.
There are no quick fixes and any potential solutions will require the commitment of police in a major way, virtually indefinitely. But the NTPA submits that a start has to be made and the opportunity is imminent. It is also an opportunity for the death of Kumanji Briscoe to be a trigger for meaningful change. It is, Your Honour, truly a case of carpe diem – seize the day.
By these submissions, the NTPA asks for findings which recognize a simple truth. Part 7, Division 4 of the Police Administration Act constitutes police as instruments for the delivery of social policy. Policy which results in the state charging its agents, police, to pick up drunks, take them to the Police watch house or sobering-up facilities, care for them while under their control, and be accountable for their actions while so doing, day after day, night after night, week after week, 365 days per year – with never ever any let up – and with matters as they presently stand, no foreseeable prospects for any let-up in the future.
But even this analysis alone, does not articulate the far broader sweep of Police involvement in the maelstrom of alcohol-induced indigenous behavior and disadvantage that was articulated in the evidence in this inquiry.
If this can be accepted, then also can it be accepted that the answer does not only lie in policing, but in changing social policy. Changes in social policy not just to protect police from the horrors they daily face, but to ameliorate, even over time prevent, the risk of death by alcohol to those persons most at risk. People like 32 year old, Kumanji Briscoe.
In the present case social policy purports to deal with the detrimental effects of excessive alcohol consumption, to life and health, in two ways.
First by very generous, indiscriminate and lightly regulated arrangements permitting the distribution, sale, availability and consumption of alcohol, without more than token regard to known risks and effects.
Second by institutional arrangements charging police with the task, and requiring the public to bear the cost, of picking up and protecting what amount to society’s flotsam and jetsam, the weakest and most vulnerable in our community; who are above all the product of misguided and failed alcohol policy which continues not to squarely and unambiguously address alcohol-caused or related harm.
Yet, on 5 January 2012, pursuant to social policy, two groups of already drunk aboriginal youths were each able, around 8.00 pm or later, to acquire, apparently through an intermediary not on the banned drinkers register, a 30 can pack of VB and one 700mm bottle of Bundaberg Rum, from a licensed grocery store [Aboriginal owned – ED] in Flynn Drive, Alice Springs.
This group or groups of Aboriginal youths had each consumed at least one 30 pack of VB cans in the afternoon and intended to drink the additional beer and then the rum, on into the evening. The drinking would be unchecked by any level of reason. Just drink till it’s all gone.
There is no reason to think any of them would get other than legless.
Society, including the store licensee, meanwhile could lie secure in the expectation that police would, at some stage, in the public interest, tip out their alcohol and take them into protective custody to allow them to sleep it off and sober up, with appropriate care and medical attention as required, before release, sometimes with charges for criminal or regulatory offences.
But, release to what? To do it again, when next money and circumstances permitted.
A particular symptom of disadvantage is the amount of money, presumably sourced mainly from that which replaced CDEP, and other welfare payments, which must be being spent on alcohol.
No doubt figures are available, but what should strike the Coroner as truly astounding is Commander Murphy’s evidence, that in the course of their normal patrol duties, in the period 1 July 2010 to 31 March 2011, and the comparable period ending 31 March 2012, Police tipped out 9,204 and 8,410 litres of alcoholic beverages, respectively.
This is alcohol taken from drinkers unlawfully in possession or, for their own safety, in Alice Springs.
What this confirms is a divide in which social policy accepts that alcohol is at the heart of indigenous disadvantage and that that disadvantage is best addressed by having Police clean up the daily mess – or one might say, slide it under a carpet daily and nightly swept by Police.
At the juncture of this divide is where social policy on alcohol and indigenous disadvantage in the Northern Territory currently collides, and at its epicentre is where Kumanji Briscoe died.
On 8 January 2012, two days after Kumanji’s death, Vince Kelly, [NTPA president] and a serving police officer, wrote a letter to [media].
“It may be beyond the scope of a single coronial enquiry, however, perhaps some of the questions that the Coroner and we should consider extend beyond this individual tragedy.
The “we” I refer to is the entire Australian community, including all Aboriginal people. These questions include:-
• What did Mr Briscoe’s family and community do to assist their countrymen, and others like him, to deal with the scourge of his own alcoholism?
• Why was this young man’s health so poor that he has died at such a young age?
• How do we help in a meaningful way four generations of Aboriginal people lost to themselves, their families, their culture, their community, and their country? So poor in fact that, having consumed beer all afternoon to the point of being very drunk, then in a space of a few minutes, just before arrival at the Police Watchouse, having consumed at least 350ml of Bundaberg Rum, as Dr Sinton, NT Forensic Pathologist opined, his chronic heart disease rendered him incapable of breathing properly when he lapsed into an alcohol-induced stupor.
• Why after over 20 years since the conclusion of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody are Aboriginal people, particularly Aboriginal men, still over represented in Northern Territory and Australian gaols?
• Why … have we been unable to break the cycle of welfare dependence and despair that afflicts so many Aboriginal people and leads many into police custody?
• Why does the community, including a large portion of the Aboriginal community, consider it appropriate for alcoholics to be placed into police custody? Why is there no real alternative?
• Why do some Aboriginal people, particularly some Aboriginal men, display such violent behaviour toward their own countrymen – women, children and men?
• Why do people living in these communities seemingly accept such appalling behaviour as the norm?
• Why do we accept that many Aboriginal women, children, and men are the victims of ongoing domestic and personal violence?
• Why after the massive increase in resources provided as part of the NT Intervention has there been so little real improvement in many Aboriginal people’s lives?
• Why do we accept that many Aboriginal children do not attend school, particularly in remote and rural Australia?
• Why do we accept that many Aboriginal children who attend school emerge without basic literacy skills?
• Why do we accept that teenage pregnancy in the Aboriginal population is commonplace – teenage parents who do not have the life skills to care for themselves?
• Why do we accept that many young Aboriginal people are unemployed?
• Why do we accept the poor health which exists in many Aboriginal Communities?
• In short why do we accept that many Aboriginal people live in a cycle of grinding poverty suffering a lack of prospects, a lack of housing, a lack of health care, a lack of education, a lack of meaningful work – a lack of hope?
And to Mr Kelly’s eloquent words, another question may be added, that is: Why are so many and an increasing number of Aboriginal children being born with foetal alcohol syndrome – a time-bomb ticking with the Australian community destined to shoulder the burden of the ultimate disruption and cost.
A review by a completely independent body (not the Northern Territory Licensing Commission, or anyone associated with vested interests) of activities and trading patterns of take-away liquor outlets in Alice Springs, with particular reference to predatory practices and to identify store licensees for which alcohol comprises more than 15% of turnover, and in particular whether alcohol should be sold for takeaway from large supermarket chains such as Coles and Woolworths, at all.
In this regard, consideration should be given to limiting the quantity of alcoholic beverages that may be sold from licensed takeaway premises, in both single, and related multiple retail transactions) to a threshold amount, and in any amount where it may be reasonably apparent to the licensee that the purchase is likely for resale, including transport for resale, in situations where ultimate consumption may be or may become unlawful.
Those transactions could be become wholesale transactions, in which more prescription could be imposed.
PHOTOS: Police CCTV images of Kwementyaye Briscoe in the watch house shortly before his death.