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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Nino Bucci Justice and courts reporter

Kumanjayi Walker inquest told of ‘clearly racist’ NT police awards that appear to contradict senior officers’ testimony

Zachary Rolfe at the the Alice Springs local court during the inquest into the death of Kumanjayi Walker
Zachary Rolfe has told the inquest into the death of Kumanjayi Walker that he has been provided with three award certificates given to NT police when they served with the TRG. Photograph: Rudi Maxwell/AAP

Award certificates allegedly given out to members of an elite Northern Territory police unit were “clearly racist”, calling into question the evidence of several senior officers, a court has heard.

Zachary Rolfe told an inquest into the death of Kumanjayi Walker earlier this week that he believed a racist mock award had been bestowed by the Tactical Response Group to the member who behaved most like an Aboriginal person.

The NT police are investigating the allegations, as well as other claims made by Rolfe about racism in the force.

But four current and former members of the TRG provided statements to the court on Thursday which denied such an award existed.

Some of the officers clarified that an award had been renamed in 2022 to avoid any connotation it was racist, and that it was possible this was the award Rolfe was referring to.

Rolfe told the court on Friday that he had since been provided with three award certificates given to officers when they had served with the TRG.

The court heard one of the certificates featured a backdrop of the Aboriginal flag, and another featured an edited image of Usain Bolt, with the Jamaican athlete’s head believed to have been replaced with the head of the officer who won the award.

One of the certificates was dated as awarded in 2013. The certificates are yet to be released by the court.

Phillip Boulten SC, representing the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency, said the certificates were “clearly racist”, and also appeared to reference blackface.

TRG officers said in their statements that there was an award called the Sooty, which was named after a former member who once almost electrocuted himself, leaving his skin blackened.

Rolfe provided the court with further details about who gave him the certificates in a bid to assist the police investigation.

Ian Freckelton KC, representing the NT police, confirmed the matter was being investigated by professional standards command, overseen by the Independent Commissioner Against Corruption.

But he said it remained unclear that the certificates were genuine, saying not even Rolfe was aware of their legitimacy, given they had been provided to him by someone else.

Freckelton argued that the court should not release the certificates publicly until their legitimacy could be established given the very serious inferences that could be drawn against the NT police.

“Nobody knows yet if these documents are what they purport to be,” he said.

Boulten opposed the application, saying Freckelton had not given any reasons why the publication of the certificates would interfere in the proper administration of justice.

The NT coroner, Elisabeth Armitage, agreed to an interim non-publication order regarding the certificates, given concerns over their “providence” and their “incendiary” nature.

Counsel assisting, Peggy Dwyer SC, said a former long-serving NT police officer who had recently retired had provided an email which “corroborates to a significant degree at face value some of the evidence” Rolfe had given regarding racism in the force.

She also said further summons may be issued to NT police in relation to the allegations made by Rolfe regarding the awards.

Armitage also confirmed in court on Friday that Rolfe’s evidence would not be completed that day as scheduled because of a series of technological failures and legal disputes, raising the spectre of yet another delay in the inquest which had been expected to finish in 2022.

She said it was unfortunate there was a further delay but that “to rush it at this point would be a disservice to the work that has already been engaged in”.

The court was adjourned until 27 May.

Outside court, Walker’s cousin Samara Fernandez-Brown said his family were “extremely exhausted” and had been hoping the evidence in the inquest would be completed on Friday.

But she said Rolfe had given evidence which underlined concerns about the extent of racism within the NT police, and the family expected to make further submissions regarding this issue in order to “keep our people safe”.

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