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Passing the halfway point, the coronial inquest into Kumanjayi Walker's death has probed the culture inside NT Police

"This isn't simply about Constable Rolfe," Northern Territory coroner Elisabeth Armitage said from the bench this week.

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.

As the inquest into the death of 19-year-old Kumanjayi Walker surpassed the halfway mark in Alice Springs, the picture coming into view before the coroner has grown wider and more detailed.

NT Police Constable Zachary Rolfe — and the Saturday night he fatally shot the Warlpiri-Luritja man in Yuendumu — is not the sole focus of the inquest's proceedings, the coroner said.

“It’s a lot broader and deeper than that,” Judge Armitage said.

“Other aspects that are important for this inquest [are] the whole attitude of people … and their attitudes towards Aboriginal people and their attitudes towards [the] use of force.”

The coroner’s exploration of the days, weeks and months that led up to — and followed — the 2019 shooting has taken a dive into the culture of the Northern Territory Police Force, as well as other agencies, and factors that played a part in how that night in Yuendumu unfolded.

Earlier this year, Constable Rolfe was tried and acquitted of all charges related to the shooting of Kumanjayi Walker.

As information barred from the criminal trial has been aired in the coroner's court — where the rules of evidence do not apply — emotions have run high inside and outside the courtroom.

The court has heard that Constable Rolfe — in his three years on the Alice Springs beat — was involved in 46 use-of-force incidents, none of which were deemed excessive after internal reviews.

And the open use of racist and sexist language among some police officers was rife, the coroner has been told.

Here is some of what has been heard over the second month of the inquest, which still has another month of sittings to go.

Constable Rolfe's recruitment to NT Police, and omissions in application 

When he joined the NT Police in 2016, Constable Rolfe was deemed a candidate with "excellent potential".

Within weeks of beginning his posting in Alice Springs, the coroner heard, Constable Rolfe was involved in the daring rescue of two tourists from a flooded river, for which he earned a bravery medal from the Governor-General.

Recruitment-stage psychometric tests had revealed that Constable Rolfe may have had an "above-average" aggression score and was "less likely than many others" to accept responsibility for his mistakes.

However, the coroner heard some of his personality traits were "not unusual" in young officers.

What recruiters did not know was the extent of Constable Rolfe's previous brushes with the law in Queensland and while in the Australian Defence Force.

The coroner was told Constable Rolfe failed to disclose a fine for public nuisance-violent behaviour from Queensland Police as well as a charge of theft in a military court.

Failure to declare the fine on a Queensland Police application saw him banned from reapplying to that state's police service for a decade.

The fine was ultimately revealed to the NT Police during the interview process, but the ADF discipline was never picked up.

"The failure to disclose would be assumed to be deliberate, instrumental and would be perceived as deceit," former NT Police psychologist Bruce Van Haeften told the court.

"If I had discovered that type of omission for any candidate, it's unlikely that I would have recommended appointment, due to their perceived dishonesty."

No findings of excessive force, after complaints

Body-worn camera footage of Constable Zachary Rolfe arresting a 14-year-old in August 2018 was shown to the coroner.(Supplied: NT Courts)

In his three years on the Alice Springs beat, the coroner was told Constable Rolfe was involved in 46 use-of-force incidents, including three arrests that left the person in custody requiring stitches for head injuries.

None of the reported incidents resulted in formal findings of excessive force by Constable Rolfe.

His superiors told the inquest that, despite several complaints being lodged against him from members of the public, no action was taken other than regular reminders to use his body worn camera.

Complaints against police are not unusual, the coroner was told, and 46 reports of force was not an unusually high number.  

One senior officer conceded he had "effectively" taken the Constable's word for an arrest that saw a man injured and complaining of excessive force.

"It's covering for a white police officer at the expense of whatever the black victim of violence might have to say?" Parumpurru Committee barrister Julian McMahon SC asked.

"It does appear that way," Acting Senior Sergeant Alistair Gall said.

No findings of excessive force were made against Constable Rolfe.

Constable Rolfe's former fiancée was also called to give evidence to the coroner, after revealing in an interview with police investigating the shooting that Constable Rolfe had allegedly previously told her "on several occasions … he would like to shoot someone so then he can go on a paid holiday".

Claudia Campagnaro — who was also a police officer during her relationship with Constable Rolfe throughout 2018 — said he had also told her he wanted to join the army's special forces because he "wanted to be paid to go out and shoot people".

Ms Campagnaro denied accusations from Constable Rolfe's barrister that she was "bitter" about the end of the relationship and made up her allegations to police.

Constable Rolfe is yet to give evidence to the inquest in response to the claims.

Confusion among elite police team sent to Yuendumu

The inquest also waded through evidence about police planning for what was meant to be Kumanjayi Walker's arrest in November 2019.

During the inquest's hearings, the coroner was also told that Yuendumu police Sergeant Julie Frost and Alice Springs Superintendent Jody Nobbs had planned for Constable Rolfe and his Immediate Response Team (IRT) colleagues to arrest Mr Walker — for breaching a court order and assaulting police — at 5am on Sunday, November 10.

The team was deployed from Alice Springs the previous afternoon. One IRT officer told the coroner he was aware of the plan. Others told the coroner they were not shown the document that detailed the plan. 

Just after 7pm on the Saturday, less than an hour after they arrived in Yuendumu, the IRT filed out of the station.

The inquest was told the officers were under the impression they were to "gather intelligence" and were to arrest Kumanjayi Walker if they "came across him".

After watching body-worn footage of the officers' intelligence-gathering efforts, Superintendent Nobbs told the coroner coming "across" Mr Walker did not mean "let's manufacture a situation [that] will potentially bring about a chance discovery".

The officer said any significant deviation from the approved plan should have been referred up.

"When it came to the question of the deployment of these officers and the proper briefing of them … consistent with the plan, the buck stopped with [Sergeant] Frost?" Frank Merenda, for Constable Rolfe, asked.

"Correct, yes," Superintendent Nobbs said.

Kumanjayi Walker was shot around 7:30pm, after he stabbed Constable Rolfe in the shoulder with a pair of scissors during the attempted arrest.

He died around an hour later, on the floor of the police station, where he was been taken because the community's nurses had evacuated earlier that day.

His family and community were locked outside.

The coroner was told they were "deceived" by police, who used an ambulance to trick the community into thinking Mr Walker was getting help.

They were not told of his death until the following morning.

NT Supreme Court to weigh in on alleged racist text

When the inquest resumes in a week's time, focus will be split between Constable Rolfe's evidence in the coroner's court and an appeal by one of his sergeants in the Northern Territory Supreme Court.

Lawyers for Sergeant Lee Bauwens — who was in charge of the IRT — took a ruling made by the coroner to the Supreme Court in late October in a last-ditch bid to prevent the officer from having to answer questions that could result in disciplinary action against him.

Sergeant Bauwens is alleged to have sent a text message to Constable Rolfe in July 2019 using racist language.

His lawyers said any answers he might give to questions about the message could incriminate him.

Coroner Elisabeth Armitage disagreed. She ruled, in relation to another sergeant, that — under the Coroner's Act — she could grant the witness a certificate to protect them from any fallout from their evidence.

However, Sergeant Bauwens's barristers will later this month appeal that ruling, arguing the coroner's powers do not extend to internal police proceedings.

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Brownhill last month granted an interim injunction, ordering that Sergeant Bauwens not be called "to answer questions on matters that could give rise to a claim for penalty privilege" until after further argument on November 18.

The inquest will continue on November 14, after a week-long break coinciding with the three-year anniversary of Kumanjayi Walker's death.

It is scheduled to continue until early December, before reconvening in early 2023 for further hearings.

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