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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Lorena Allam Indigenous affairs editor and Nino Bucci

Deputy commissioner highly critical of botched arrest of Kumanjayi Walker, inquest hears

Zachary Rolfe at the inquest into the death of Kumanjayi Walker at the Alice Springs local court in November 2022
Constable Zachary Rolfe at the inquest into the death of Kumanjayi Walker at the Alice Springs local court in November. Photograph: Aaron Bunch/AAP

The Northern Territory police’s second-highest serving officer has told an inquest he is “struggling to find a reason why” there was such a deviation from the “detailed” plan to arrest Warlpiri teenager Kumanjayi Walker on the day he was shot and killed by Constable Zachary Rolfe.

Walker, 19, was shot dead by Rolfe during a botched arrest in the remote Northern Territory community of Yuendumu in 2019. Rolfe was cleared of all criminal charges in relation to the shooting.

The deputy commissioner of NT police, Murray Smalpage, was highly critical of the operation to arrest Walker conducted by Rolfe and the other members of the immediate response team.

“Their tactics they applied … should have been different,” Smalpage said.

A plan to arrest Walker, developed by the Yuendumu community police sergeant Julie Frost, was “detailed” and “logical”, and the deviation from it should not have occurred, Smalpage said.

Frost had requested officers from the immediate response team, which handles high-risk arrests, to travel to Yuendumu on 9 November 2019 because of a series of issues within the community, and to assist in the arrest of Walker the following morning at 5am.

Rolfe, three colleagues in the immediate response team and an officer trained to handle police dogs arrived in Yuendumu from Alice Springs later that day. Walker was fatally shot that evening.

Smalpage told the inquest he did not think the team’s use of “long arm weapons” was appropriate, because arresting Walker was not a “high-risk deployment”.

The officers should have known the “easily identifiable risk” that Kumanjayi Walker represented, Smalpage told the court, based on an incident three days earlier in which community officers in Yuendumu apprehended him while he was brandishing an axe, and peacefully disarmed him.

He said those officers “applied discretion and a common sense approach, to try and encourage Kumanjayi Walker to surrender. I think it was appropriate.”

Smalpage said it was “not a unique event” for police officers to have to arrest somebody who may have a weapon or presented the risk of absconding.

He said the obligation in light of that reality was for “members to undertake that task in terms of assessing the risk and working a way through to mitigating it”.

Under questioning by Ian Freckelton on behalf of the NT police, Smalpage said such preparation was important for “those who are about to embark upon the task, to know what they’re going to do, as opposed to just turning up and and driving in aimless circles”.

Smalpage formally apologised to Walker’s families yesterday on behalf of the NT police force, and said he had attended almost every day of the inquest to date, “to ensure that we gain every possible nuance” on how to improve and prevent another tragedy from occurring.

Smalpage said NT police were analysing whether use of force complaints were more common against officers who had previously served in the military – such as Rolfe – when compared with other officers.

He said 293 former Australian Defence Force staff applied to join the force between 2016 and 2018, with 47 being given letters of offer.

Anecdotally, he said, it did not appear police with these backgrounds were responsible for more use of force incidents, but command were doing further work to establish this.

Rolfe was linked to 46 use of force incidents in three years before travelling to Yuendumu, but this was not considerably higher than other NT police officers, and most were not serious, Smalpage said.

Smalpage was asked about Rolfe’s failure to declare on his NT police application form that he had been rejected from the Queensland police, had previously been charged with a criminal offence in Queensland, and had been found to have stolen from a colleague while serving in the military.

He said the conduct demonstrated a dishonesty that he would not wish to see in a police officer.

“It strikes at the honesty of the applicant,” he said. “In my view it’s absolutely critical.”

Yesterday the court heard that Rolfe may have made an “attempt to pervert the course of justice” in writing an open letter about his conduct, and that media outlets that published it could be investigated for contempt.

Rolfe said in a 2,500-word statement published on Facebook that he was a “good cop” who “loved the job”, but that he had been “painted” as racist and violent.

Freckelton said on Monday the force was “extremely concerned” about Rolfe’s conduct.

Freckelton said Rolfe was served with a notice alleging four serious breaches of discipline in June last year in relation to previous interviews he had conducted with the media.

Freckleton said Rolfe admitted each of the breaches and was then placed on a “period of good behaviour operative for 12 months” and was formally cautioned.

He said Rolfe could have therefore not been “under any illusion” about his obligations to the force when he wrote the letter.

Freckleton said that on Sunday police served Rolfe’s lawyers with a notice to give a response in relation to his conduct within seven days.

“Depending on what response is received, further action is going to take place, and if appropriate, swiftly,” Freckleton said.

The inquest was expected to be finalised by the end of last year but could now run until August.

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