News & Current Affairs
Systemic racism: not shocking or surprising
Text message exchanges between Constable Zachary Rolfe and other Northern Territory police officers, which have been described as “shocking”, “surprising” and “blatantly racist”, have been the subject of media attention in the last fortnight, as the coronial inquest into the death of Kumanjayi Walker in the Northern Territory continues.
The coronial inquest is currently considering the circumstances surrounding Mr Walker’s death, after he was shot three times by Constable Rolfe in Yuendumu in November 2019. Constable Rolfe was found not guilty of any offence in relation to Mr Walker’s death, following a trial earlier this year.
On 14 September 2022, during the evidence of Sergeant Anne Jolley, the police officer in charge of the Yuendumu police station, various text messages between Constable Rolfe and other police officers were read out in Court, following a ruling by the Coroner that they could be adduced as evidence.
The content of those text messages is distressing. In one of the messages, Constable Rolfe stated “I do have a licence to towel locals. I like it.” In another, referring to his body worn camera, Constable Rolfe said “I’m always ready to make my camera face the other way…” Other text messages use the terms “n***as”, “c**ns” and “Neanderthals”, in reference to Indigenous Australians.
The Coroner has also ruled that Constable Rolfe’s ex-fiancée and former Northern Territory police officer Claudia Campagnaro will be allowed to give evidence in the inquest. In deciding that her evidence would be relevant to the inquest, the Coroner read passages of Ms Campagnaro’s statements to the police following Mr Walker’s death, in which she said “[Zachary Rolfe] would just off-the-cuff say words to the effect of, ‘if I shot someone, I could go on a six-month holiday’” and “[Zachary Rolfe] said to me, ‘I like being a soldier, it was good money and they could go out and kill people’… He said this to me a few times…” Constable Rolfe has denied making those comments.
It is unclear whether Constable Rolfe remains a police officer, or whether disciplinary action is proposed in respect of his messages, however, following his acquittal in March this year, the ABC reported that he was set to return to the Northern Territory police force, after being suspended with pay whilst his murder trial was ongoing.
Indigenous Australians face historic, social and economic barriers that are incomprehensible to the majority of non-Indigenous Australians. They are 10 times more likely to be incarcerated than non-Indigenous Australians, and make up just over 30% of Australia’s prison population, despite making up only 3.8% of the total population. 
In fact, according to the United Nations Association of Australia, a young Indigenous man is more likely to go to jail than he is to go to university. If that is not one of the clearest examples of a deeply harrowing problem, I don’t know what is.
So, why are Indigenous Australians so over-represented in our criminal justice system, and what can we do to solve that? Well – the answer to that is multi-faceted and the solution is complex. Changing the attitude of police officers such as Constable Rolfe is a good start.
I am not suggesting that all police officers hold racist views – I think that would over-simplify the issue, but, what is clear from the material adduced in the coronial inquest in relation to Constable Rolfe is that some officers do hold those views, and in my mind, that is demonstrative of a systemic problem with the culture amongst some young officers.
Having police officers who hold those views impacts the way that officers deal with the community they police and lowers confidence and trust in police officers by the community.
An article published by the Guardian in June 2020 examined the issue of “over-policing” of Indigenous Australians, and the impact of that.  The article delved into several examples where Indigenous Australians were treated differently to their non-Indigenous counterparts – one such example examined data showing that 40.03% of non-Indigenous Australians were “let off” with cautions when found with cannabis, in comparison to just 11.41% of Indigenous Australians.
Whilst that may not examine the specific facts surrounding those cases, it is demonstrative of a disparity between the way some police might exercise their discretion for Indigenous Australians and non-Indigenous Australians. The Guardian described this feat of over-policing as having the effect of “trapping” Indigenous Australians in the justice system.
When dealing with that issue, I often see phrases thrown around like “our police officers need better training and education.” I think perhaps those suggestions are a little simplistic. I don’t think the answer lies just with training and education of officers. Constable Rolfe was educated at arguably Canberra’s most expensive and exclusive private schools.
I think it also lies with addressing systemic cultural issues and policing with compassion. This is not about education. It is about officers using compassion towards those who weren’t afforded the same privileges in life. Having known and spoken to many police officers, it’s common to hear them say that the reason they chose that career was to help people, and better their communities – well, policing with compassion, and without discrimination achieves that goal.
Change goes beyond our officers treating everyone “equal” because equality before the law does not always dictate that everyone should be treated the same. High Court Justice McHugh once stated that discrimination can arise just as readily from an act which treats as equals those who are different as it can from an act which treats differently persons whose circumstances are not materially different.
We are now 31 years on from the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, which examined the issue of the over-representation of Indigenous Australians in our justice system, and yet, we seem to be so far away from where we need to be.
While the reason for that is complex, and the result of so many factors which are perhaps outside of the scope of this blog, in my view one aspect of the overrepresentation can and should be addressed by our police officers here in Australia.
In my view, a powerful step in the right direction is in all of our hands, and that is an enshrined First Nations Voice in our Parliament, which will be the subject of an upcoming referendum to Australia’s Constitution. That, however, is perhaps a topic for another Aulich blog in the future.
 Inquest in to the death of Kumanjayi Walker, Northern Territory Office of the Coroner, September 14, 2022 (https://justice.nt.gov.au/attorney-general-and-justice/courts/inquests-findings/kumanjayi-walker).
 Waters v Public Transport Corporation (1991) 173 CLR 349 at .