Australian activists hope the George Floyd murder conviction in the United States will prompt action to cut the number of Indigenous deaths in police custody. At least 450 First Australians have died in detention since a powerful royal commission investigated the problem in 1991.
The murder 14,000 kilometers away in the United States prompted protests last year in Australia. George Floyd’s death highlighted the mistreatment of Indigenous people within the justice system. Australia’s original inhabitants have been incarcerated at 13 times the rate of nonaboriginal people. They have a greater risk of dying in custody than other prisoners.
Ronnie Gorrie, a former police officer, is optimistic that change is on its way.
“It took the death of a Black man, George Floyd, for Australia to stand up and listen and pay attention, and what they do not realize is that these deaths that have been occurring in our country for centuries,” Gorrie said.
In 1991, a royal commission looking into Aboriginal deaths in custody made more than 300 recommendations across broad areas of policy, including improving the way First Nation communities interacted with the police and courts. A review in 2018 for the prime minister’s department in Canberra found that more than 90% of the commission’s recommendations had been fully or partly implemented. Since then, though, at least 450 Indigenous prisoners have died in custody.
Tony McAvoy, who was Australia's first Indigenous senior counsel, or senior barrister, says Indigenous communities simply do not trust the legal system.
“We have to ask, are there things occurring in which there are police cover-ups?” he said. “They have no faith that the system is being truthful in how it is dealing with our interactions with the legal system and in particular deaths in custody.”
Later this year two serving Australian police officers will face trials for murder over the deaths of Aboriginal prisoners. They both deny the charges.
Indigenous Australians are among the most incarcerated people in the world. They make up about 3% of the national population, and suffer disproportionately high rates of poverty, ill health and unemployment.
Australia’s federal, state and territory governments have joined the national Closing the Gap program that aims to improve education, employment and well-being in Indigenous communities. A key aim of the plan is to reduce the number of Aboriginal children in detention by 30% by 2031.