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Kumanjayi Walker inquest hears officers thought drawing their guns would 'escalate' axe incident, before shooting death

Two police officers have revisited the so-called "axe incident" that took place days before Kumanjayi Walker's shooting death, telling the coroner they didn't think the 19-year-old was a threat, even when he confronted them with a weapon during an attempted arrest. 

WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that this article contains an image of a person who has died, used with the permission of their family.

A three-month inquest is underway in Alice Springs into the death of Mr Walker, after he was shot three times by Constable Rolfe during an attempted arrest in 2019, after Mr Walker stabbed the officer in the shoulder with a pair of scissors.

A jury found Constable Rolfe not guilty of all charges. 

Three days before Mr Walker died, he brandished an axe at Senior Constable Lanyon Smith and Senior Constable Chris Hand, before running into the bush to evade them.

Neither officer drew their weapon.

Drawing weapon would 'escalate' situation, officer says

Senior Constable Smith told Coroner Elisabeth Armitage that he didn't think Mr Walker posed a threat to himself or other people, and he worried drawing his weapon could "escalate" the situation.

"I did not have concerns that he was going to go around the community chopping people up with the axe. I did not have concerns that he was going to do anything other than run," he said.

Senior Constable Smith added that drawing his firearm would permanently affect his relationship with the Yuendumu community.

"I doubt I could even work again," he said.

Today Senior Constable Hand told Judge Armitage the incident was regarded as "serious" and "shocking" by Mr Walker's adoptive grandmother but that he interpreted the axe as a show of force instead of an active threat.

The coroner also heard the officers had chosen not to use their weapons at the time because they feared a bullet could ricochet unpredictably and possibly injure other people in the house at the time.

Both officers explained that their experience in community had equipped them with the knowledge required to understand the culture of the people they were policing and taught them to prioritise relationship building and communication over force.

When asked if they had ever pulled their weapons on the job, Senior Constable Hand, who has been an officer since 1995, said he had only used it once after being told to by a senior officer during an arrest attempt where the target was known to have a gun.

Senior Constable Smith told the coroner that he had "faced weapons before" but never drawn his gun.

Last week the coroner heard evidence from another officer, Sergeant Anne Jolley, that she had been in a similar situation and also elected not to draw her weapon.

The coroner also heard that in June this year, Northern Territory Police circulated a memo to members saying "knife equals gun" did not accurately reflect "operational safety principles".

During the trial, the jury heard Constable Rolfe was enacting "knife equals gun" protocol, an adage in police training that directs officers to draw their gun when they're threatened with a bladed weapon.

Today, two officers told the coroner they both knew the phrase, however had not put it into practice themselves.

Cultural competency on the job

Questions of police training also came under scrutiny as the three officers were asked to reflect on how they acquired their knowledge of Aboriginal culture, which they drew on to police effectively in community.

Judge Armitage heard new recruits were routinely taken on an overnight trip to Daly Waters during their initial training in Darwin to learn about Indigenous culture, but all three officers agreed most of their knowledge came from Aboriginal police community officer, Derek Williams.

Mr Willams inducted new police into the community, introducing them to key elders and educating them in cultural protocol.

The officers' reliance on Aboriginal officers for local knowledge and cultural brokering was scrutinised by Andrew Boe, counsel for the Walker, Lane and Robertson families.

The coroner heard the system was "reliant on the availability" of Mr Williams.

"My suggestion is that a system that relies on his availability is likely to fall foul at times," Mr Boe said.

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