The number of Aboriginal Australians who died in police custody or following a police operation in New South Wales in 2021 has doubled the previous record 25 years ago, sparking furious calls for reform of the justice system in the state.
Amid rising incarceration rates and a series of legislative changes making it more difficult to bail accused offenders, data provided by the state coroner’s court found that 16 Aboriginal died as they were caught up in the justice system last year.
The previous record – eight – was set in 1997.
The revelation prompted an angry response from the Indigenous Legal Service, as well as the families of the deceased.
The SLA’s chief legal adviser, Nadine Miles, called it “unthinkable and shameful”, urging the government to introduce measures to give the coroner the power to force police to act on recommendations from inquests.
“No one should die alone, in pain and fear, forcibly separated from loved ones,” Miles told the Guardian.
“The lives of the families of these people have been changed forever. There are children left to navigate the world without a parent. There are moms and dads, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles and grandparents desperately looking for answers and responsibility.
The spike came despite the total number of people who died in police custody or in a police operation falling to 43 – the lowest since 2018.
Most of the 13 people who died in a police operation were Indigenous.
It comes as the inquest into the death of Gomeroi man Gordon Copeland, who drowned in the River Gwydir in the early hours of July 10, 2021, concluded last month.
In another case, Frank “Gud” Coleman, a 43-year-old Ngemba man, was found dead in his cell at Long Bay prison in July 2021.
Her daughter, Lakota Coleman, and her former partner, Skye Hipwell, remain devastated by her death.
While the number of deaths last year was ‘extraordinary’, Lakota also recalled that after her father’s death, it was ‘barely a week’ before she read of another death in custody. .
“The feeling of, you cry one, then you see another. You can’t explain your emotions. Sad, angry, it’s a mix of everything,” she says.
Governments across Australia have conducted numerous inquiries into deaths in custody, including the 1991 Royal Commission, many of whose recommendations were never implemented.
More recently, a New South Wales parliamentary inquiry into the incarceration of indigenous people called for the role of the state police watchdog to be expanded to include monitoring deaths in custody.
Labor MP Adam Searle, who chaired that inquiry, said the recommendation should be implemented “as a matter of urgency”.
“The number of First Nations people dying in custody has been too high for too long – and appears to be getting worse,” he said.
A spokesman for the prime minister, Dominic Perrottet, said the government had “worked closely with indigenous communities to develop a strong relationship and remains committed to the National Accord to Close the Gap”.
The spokesperson said the collaboration included “addressing disproportionate rates of Indigenous incarceration.”
However, in its response to the inquiry, the government rejected the recommendation for independent monitoring of deaths in custody.
Another recommendation, requiring the NSW Police or Corrective Services to provide updates on the implementation of the coroner’s findings, was still under consideration.
Miles said the coroner should be given increased tracking powers.
“The number of lives lost should be a wake-up call to the government and parliament of New South Wales,” she said.
“It’s not enough to keep issuing recommendations that are never implemented – this attitude of inaction is just an insult to grieving families.”
Lakota Coleman and Hipwell remain determined that Coleman will not become “just another black guy who died in prison”.
“It’s not just his loss as a father or brother, it’s a loss to our community as an Indigenous person,” Lakota said.
NSW Corrections said it expressed its “sincere sympathy to the families” of those who died, noting that a review of Aboriginal deaths in custody was currently being conducted on the agency’s behalf.