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NT Police Deputy Commissioner Murray Smalpage tells Kumanjayi Walker inquest he has seen no evidence of 'systemic' racism in force

NT Deputy Police Commissioner Murray Smalpage arrives at Alice Springs Local Court for the Kumanjayi Walker inquest. Picture taken by Melissa Mackay on 27/2/23 (ABC News: Melissa Mackay)

In a gruelling third day in the witness box, one of the Northern Territory's highest ranking police officers has told the coroner investigating the shooting of Indigenous man Kumanjayi Walker that he is not aware of systemic racism within the force.

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

Deputy Police Commissioner Murray Smalpage has spent days giving evidence to the inquest into the death of the 19-year-old Warlpiri-Luritja man, giving the court an overview of changes the fiorce has made since the November 2019 shooting.

NT Police Constable Zachary Rolfe, who fatally shot Mr Walker during an attempted arrest, was last year acquitted of all criminal charges at trial.

A year after, NT Coroner Elisabeth Armitage is investigating the broad circumstances of the police shooting, including whether systemic issues played a part in Mr Walker's death.

Deputy Commissioner Smalpage on Wednesday told the coroner the NT Police Force was currently undergoing significant and complex reforms, including re-writing the general orders of the NT Police and senior executives personally meeting with every officer above a senior sergeant rank to discuss the state of the frontline.

"Reform and change are not easy. At times, they can be confusing for the workforce, but nevertheless, we are committed to making significant reform to the Northern Territory Police Force to ensure that we minimise the opportunity of this ever occurring again," Deputy Commissioner Smalpage said.

Kumanjayi Walker was fatally shot by Constable Rolfe in Yuendumu in 2019. (Supplied)

After the revelation of a series of racist text messages and evidence from other witnesses of sexism within the NT Police force, Deputy Commissioner Smalpage told the coroner there was work to do; but he stopped short of accepting suggestions there was systemic racism within the ranks.

"I don't believe that we have systemic racism in the Northern Territory Police Force, that I am aware of," he said.

"It's very clear throughout this inquest that there (were) members of the Northern Territory Police Force exchanging racist and sexist, misogynist views.

"I'm aware of other incidences where similar things have come to the attention of the Northern Territory Police Force, and we have taken swift action to deal with it.

"It's not acceptable."

Deputy Commissioner Smalpage says there are reforms underway to improve some officers' attitudes in the NT Police force. (ABC News: Hamish Harty)

The Deputy Commissioner told the coroner there were a "whole raft of things that could be perceived as systemic racism towards Aboriginal people" but maintained he believed that the NT Police Force, as an organisation, did not operate under a model that allowed racism.

"If there are things that are identified from time to time through inquests, through failed prosecution, through legislature deficiencies … I think we've got to be responsive to be able to deal with it as they come up," he said.

"Cultural reform is at the heart of what we're trying to achieve and we will, and have, looked at rights and wrongs, goods and bads.

"It's a warts and all approach, and it's difficult."

'Clash' between Aboriginal culture and policing

Under cross examination by Andrew Boe, acting for members of Mr Walker's family, Deputy Commissioner Smalpage stood by the decision of police officers to attempt to arrest Mr Walker during a period of Sorry Business, or cultural mourning.

The coroner heard that two days before he was shot by Constable Rolfe, Mr Walker had confronted other police with an axe as they tried to arrest him for breaching a court order.

The arrest failed and officers from Alice Springs, including Constable Rolfe, were called to Yuendumu to assist local police.

Mr Boe suggested the arrest should not have occurred around the time of Mr Walker's grandfather's funeral, but Deputy Commissioner Smalpage told the inquest it was lawful.

The attempted arrest and shooting of Mr Walker happened during a time of Sorry Business in Yuendumu. (ABC News: Xavier Martin)

"There is a need to understand cultural awareness, however the processes they were about to execute were lawful," he said.

"That clash between cultural appropriateness and lawfully executing (police) duties is always going to be a challenge for our officers … when you get the clash of a 50,000 year old culture and a legislative framework written by politicians and others, it's really complicated.

"We are trying to be responsive to provide justice in an even forum, and it's not always that way, unfortunately."

'Screening' of new officers 'impractical'

The coroner has previously heard calls for new police officers posted to remote communities to be "endorsed" by members of a community before they began work.

Under cross examination by barrister Julian Murphy, acting for the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA), Deputy Commissioner Smalpage said the proposition had been considered, but that it was ultimately unachievable.

"The result of the Northern Territory Police force's position is that you're denying Aboriginal people a say in who comes to police them in their communities?," Mr Murphy asked. 

"To my knowledge there's not a police force in Australia that has the proposition that you're trying to propose there," Deputy Commissioner Smalpage said.

"I think it's impracticable.

"We've got limited resources. We can't deliver it at the moment."

The Deputy Commissioner also indicated that banning former Australian Defence Force (ADF) members from remote postings was not possible, with 26 per cent of the current police force made up of ex-defence members.

He told the inquest there were opportunities for communities to raise concerns with senior police if they had a problem with an officer in a remote station.

"There's lots of scope for us to take appropriate steps with a community if it's not working out and we do it, it happens not infrequently," Deputy Commissioner Smalpage said.

He told the court that the sergeant in charge of the Yuendumu police station at the time Mr Walker was shot, Julie Frost, had left her community posting in such circumstances.

Deputy Commissioner Smalpage will continue giving evidence on Thursday.

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