NT officers unaware of 'systemic racism'

·3-min read

Two senior remote community police officers have denied knowledge of systemic racism within the Northern Territory force at the same time expressing concern over "patently racist" texts.

In her second day of evidence at the inquest into the shooting death of Indigenous teenager Kumanjayi Walker, Sergeant Anne Jolley said she had not experienced officers using obviously racist terms in the course of their duty, even when dealing with violent offenders.

"Maybe a swear word, but not those words," she said on Thursday.

Nor had she had a "perception" of systemic racism within the force, the inquest was told.

Her comments followed the detailing on Wednesday of text messages exchanged between a small group of officers, including the one who shot Mr Walker during an attempted arrest in Yuendumu in 2019.

They were retrieved from the phone of Constable Zachary Rolfe, who was initially charged with the murder of the 19-year-old Warlpiri man but later acquitted after a Supreme Court trial.

In the messages sent months before the shooting, Const Rolfe wrote about being allowed to "towel locals up" and made reference to "Neanderthals who drink too much" and "c***s", a term described as "blatantly racist".

Questioning Sgt Jolley, the senior officer at Yuendumu, Const Rolfe's counsel David Edwardson KC said the text messages were "patently racist and patently abhorrent".

"(But) the private, appalling messages that were read into the transcript are not, in your experience at least, a reflection of the way any police officer, in your presence, has behaved?" Mr Edwardson asked.

"No," Sgt Jolley replied.

She had earlier agreed the texts were disgusting and disgraceful.

Also questioned about some of the text messages, another police witness, Sergeant Lanyon Smith said he had similarly not experienced the use of such racist language.

But he agreed that if left unchecked it could normalise expressions of racism.

Responding to the texts outside the inquest, Walker family representative Samara Fernandez-Brown said the messages among officers were an indication of systemic racism and not just a case of "a few rotten eggs".

"If that continues to be ignored then there will never be meaningful change, and Indigenous people will continue to feel unsafe and ignored, she said.

"I believe there must be investigations and disciplinary actions in reaction to the conversation exchanges.

"It begs to question, why did they feel so comfortable expressing those attitudes? One would assume it is because those attitudes may be accepted, or at least go undisciplined."

In other evidence on Thursday, counsel for the Parumpurru Justice Committee said it would put submissions to the coroner that police in Yuendumu no longer carry guns and that local community leaders and elders be given some say over which officers were stationed in the town.

Sgt Jolley said she would be willing to work with any community committee that might be appointed to approve appointments.

But she balked at a suggestion that no officers with a military background be sent to the area.

"To be honest, we just want the right police out there, I don't know whether their background or anything should be taken into consideration," she said.