Ms Dhu came into contact with lots of people while in custody. Four nurses, two doctors and eleven police officers of varying ranks all had interactions with her before the final time she was brought to the hospital, already in cardiac arrest. All these people related to her in their capacities as carers of a sort – health practitioners or custodial officers. When you are taken into custody, you are taken into the care of the state. The state has a duty of care and the public officials that pick you up and watch over you enact that care.
For three days, Ms Dhu tried to get the attention of someone who would care for her. The only person who did was the triage nurse on her first visit to hospital. After that, nobody did.
The police officers that arrested Ms Dhu with her abusive partner did not care that her grandmother had warned police he was in town in an effort to keep her safe. The officers at the lock-up who did a health check of Ms Dhu in the presence of her violent partner did not care that she might have been assaulted by him before their arrest. The nurses who failed to take her temperature on her second visit to the hospital, when she would have been in the grip of sepsis, did not care that she might have a fever. The doctor who failed to take a chest X-ray did not care that without this, he would not be able to find the source of her pain.
The doctors who wrote ‘behavioural issues’ and ‘drug withdrawal?’ on Ms Dhu’s medical notes did not care that these impressions of her emotional state directed attention away from her physical health. The same doctors who signed the fit-for-custody forms did not care that they were discharging Ms Dhu without an actual diagnosis. The nurses who failed to ask Ms Dhu if she had presented to hospital in the last 48 hours did not care that her condition had not gone away, and had in fact worsened. The police officers who failed to pass this information on to hospital staff did not care that it might make a difference to her treatment. The nurse that gave her a triage score of 4 instead of 3 or 2, indicating fever or chest pain, did not care to ask Ms Dhu how often she used drugs and assumed she was suffering withdrawal.
The detective in the coronial investigation unit who gave the go-ahead for the autopsy on Ms Dhu’s body did not care that he had broken a promise to Ms Dhu’s grandmother that it would not start before she got there. The internal affairs inspector who laughs when he says to court that he probably should have looked at the 36 minutes of CCTV footage from the time Ms Dhu was dragged out of her cell until the scene was secured, does not care that Ms Dhu’s family are in the room to hear him. The coroner, who asks those who cannot contain their emotions to leave the courtroom, does not care that the CCTV footage of an unconscious Ms Dhu being dragged out of the cell is distressing to watch. The counsel assisting the coroner, who scheduled all the witnesses into two weeks only to find that at the end of the first week they were running over time, does not care that it will be another four months that the family has to wait before getting any answers, if then. When the inquest resumes in March 2016, we are going to hear testimony from police officers trying to hide the fact that they did not care for Ms Dhu. They did not care for her in life and they do not care for her in death.
The coronial inquest is all about procedure. And procedure does not care. The process of witness examination and cross-examination and presentation of evidence is meant to be ‘objective’. These are the facts. And facts do not care. Permeating the coronial process is the same indifference of the police and health staff interactions with Ms Dhu. The coroner’s role is to assess the quality of care Ms Dhu received. But care didn’t even make an appearance.
Police cannot act as carers. Care is an act that requires compassion, and compassion requires empathy. How can you feel empathy for someone while punishing them at the same time? Lack of care is not an absence but a presence in which there is vast capacity, if not intent, to do harm. Ms Dhu was struggling against this presence all the while she was in custody.
One morning, on my way to the inquest, I saw two police officers on bikes approach an Aboriginal woman walking through Northbridge. She had been singing and talking loudly at customers of a cafe but did not loiter. About two hundred metres away from the cafe, the police caught up with her and told her the cafe had complained. They asked her name: she didn’t give it but they already knew it. They asked her address: she had none. She had already moved on but they issued her a move-on notice anyway. The woman wasn’t allowed to come back to the Northbridge area for twenty-four hours. If she did, she would be arrested.
The police did not care to check that she understood. They did not care that if arrested, she likely wouldn’t be able to pay a fine. They did not care that if she could not pay her fine, she would end up in the lock-up or in prison. And they would not care if they were the ones charged with caring for her while in custody. They did not care that she was no longer creating a ‘disturbance’ and thought they may as well issue her a pre-emptive move-on notice for the benefit of the cafe owner and customers.
This is how it begins. Mistreatment starts with a police imperative to remove from view the people who might draw attention to their presence, who poke the bubble of the eaters and drinkers, the ones who participate in public life as it is advertised. And we have to ask ourselves, for whose supposed benefit are Aboriginal people put away?
Image of Pentridge Prison cells, courtesy of Nickinator.