‘Do you believe the Footscray police has done their duty of care?’ Getachew Seyoum asks. He is standing at the bar table, during the coronial inquest into the death of his son, Michael Atakelt, who was found dead in the Maribyrnong River in July 2011.
‘I don’t think I could comment on that,’ Acting Senior Sergeant Tatter-Rendlemann, from Williamstown police station, replies.
The exchange is translated into Tigrinya for the family and three-dozen members of the Tigray community, of northern Ethiopia, who have been present throughout the inquest. But there it ends. He does not explain why he can’t comment. He just doesn’t, and no-one asks again.
Tatter-Rendlemann is the detective investigating the case on behalf of the Coroner. His evidence is this: he has ‘absolutely no results or theories’ about what happened from the time Atakelt was last seen until his body was recovered eleven days later.
The initial investigation was completed by Senior Constable Tim McKerracher, from Footscray police station, whose best guess was that Atakelt had entered the river several kilometres downstream from where the body was found.
But during the first stage of the inquest – in February 2013, more than a year and a half after Atakelt died – Sergeant George Dixon, from the water police, said it was not possible for a body to move such a distance upstream. McKerracher had not investigated any upstream clues, and he hadn’t spoken to Dixon, or to the search and rescue squad, who retrieved the body and who have since provided similar evidence.
And so, with nothing to go on, the Coroner suspended the hearing. He directed the police to reinvestigate with a different detective in charge.
Tatter-Rendlemann took over, but was assisted by McKerracher. On the Coroner’s instructions, they followed up evidence that had never been collected. They sought CCTV footage and security information from several locations, but it was two years too late. Wherever there was footage or other records, they had long since been deleted. The detectives put out a media release and distributed posters asking for witnesses. No-one replied. They sought further interviews, but couldn’t track everyone down. Those they did find offered no new clues.
Almost from the moment Atakelt’s body was found, community members have repeatedly requested an independent investigation, and that Footscray police not be involved.
At a public meeting in December 2011, Assistant Commissioner Stephen Fontana defended the decision to assign the case to Footscray, explaining that it was standard practice for the local crime investigators to handle such a case, and he would not deviate from that practice.
But he assured his audience that not only was an experienced investigator in charge, but also that his work had been closely overseen by the Homicide Squad, and monitored by both the Ethical Standards Department and the Office of Police Integrity. It was, he promised, ‘a very thorough investigation’.
Detective Senior Sergeant Sol Solomon was also there that day. Solomon, from homicide, took the microphone and offered his sympathy to the family and community for their loss. He continued: ‘I can assure you that the investigation has been thorough and totally dedicated to finding out exactly what happened to Michael and why he lost his life in the river. I’ve seen the quality of the investigation myself and it is first class and you can be assured that all possible leads have been explored.’
Subsequently, in an interview with me on 29 December 2011, Fontana reiterated his comments at the forum. He explained that by ‘oversight’, he meant: ‘actively monitoring all stages of the investigation’.
Did that supervision occur? Were all levels of police oversight satisfied that the investigation of this young man’s death was ‘first class’? If so, who will hold them to account?
In February, Victoria Police settled a long-running racial discrimination claim brought by several young African-Australian men. The young men say police regularly stopped them around Flemington and North Melbourne for no legitimate reason, and assaulted and racially taunted them.
Victoria Police denies the allegations, but as part of the settlement, it agreed to hold public inquiries into its cross-cultural training and ‘field contacts’ policy.
These inquiries are being conducted now. They are independent and open to public submissions. The final reports are due in December. Ken Lay, the Chief Commissioner of Victoria Police, has made several strong public statements about the importance of these inquiries and the need to stamp out examples of racism in the force. ‘We need to have the public’s trust and confidence in what we do,’ he said, announcing the public submission process.
One document released from the racial discrimination case – statistical evidence based on police data – shows that young African-Australian men in the area were two-and-a-half times more likely to be stopped and searched, even though they committed relatively fewer crimes than young men of other ethnic backgrounds.
But, as Michael Atakelt’s case demonstrates, overpolicing is only one part of the problem. ‘The flipside of overpolicing is underprotection,’ explains Associate Professor Steve James, a criminologist from University of Melbourne. ‘You target certain groups and you overpolice them, but you don’t provide for them the same rigor of victim services. Police can do just as much damage to community relations by simply underpolicing as they can by overpolicing.’
After a six-month pause, the inquest into Atakelt’s death resumed last Monday. The Coroners Court is on the eleventh floor of an ordinary office building on Exhibition Street. Each day, about three-dozen members of the Tigray community attended. The presiding coroner, Ian Gray, was careful to ensure that everything was translated into Tigrinya and, also, that Seyoum, who is representing himself, has been able to ask whatever questions he would like.
For most of the week, evidence centred on the failed attempts by Atakelt’s mother, Askalu Tella, to report her son missing. It took four separate visits and several phone calls over three days before a police officer lodged the report, by which time Tella – whose English is limited – had become very agitated.
In their evidence for the Coroner, all the police officers maintained they had made the correct decision: at that time, there was no reason for any concern or fear for Atakelt’s welfare – even when the report was finally lodged. The following day, however, he was found dead in the river.
For days, those police officers were questioned at great length about normal procedures and about their conversations with Tella. And so, for most of the week, Atakelt went missing from his own inquest.
He returned late on Friday afternoon, in the final piece of evidence before the hearing adjourned once more: the court was shown CCTV footage of his last known whereabouts.
At 7.07 pm on Sunday 26 June, 2011, Atakelt stepped off the train at Newmarket Station, in Flemington. On the screen, we watched him walking calmly among the crowd of exiting passengers, dressed in a dark jumper with a pale stripe across the chest. He slowed an instant as someone passed through the gates before him, and, then, he too exited the scene. We watched him leave the station as though he were an ordinary young man getting off a train.
The Coroner called a break. Afterwards, community members asked to watch the video again to verify its authenticity. People had noticed that the date and time had not appeared onscreen. How could they believe what they had seen?
Among Atakelt’s family and community members, the conduct of the investigation has produced a vast store of suspicion. And the curiosities continue. Detective McKerracher was overseas on holidays, unavailable to attend for the whole week. Also missing were the senior police – Fontana, Solomon, and the responsible officers of the (then) Ethical Standards Department and Office of Police Integrity – who oversaw and vouched for the quality of the investigation.
At that public meeting in December 2011, Fontana said this: ‘We will ultimately be judged on the quality of this investigation by the Coroner and any of these oversight bodies. We’re very conscious of that and the members, in my view, have done a very thorough job.’
Given Ken Lay’s commitment elsewhere to establishing the trust of the community, he should be keenly interested in their explanations. But no-one, not the Coroner, nor any of the parties – including the barrister representing the Chief of Police – has so far sought their evidence.
There are still three days remaining in the inquest, scheduled for late September. At the last moment, on a request from Seyoum, McKerracher has been listed as a witness. He may yet have to answer questions about the conduct of the investigation.