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

Senior NT police deny Zachary Rolfe’s claim unit held racist mock award, inquest hears

Zachary Rolfe
Zachary Rolfe (pictured) claimed at the Kumanjayi Walker inquest that racist language was ‘normalised in the NT police force’. Photograph: Rudi Maxwell/AAP

Senior police from the Northern Territory’s heavily armed tactical response unit have strongly denied claims by Zachary Rolfe that the unit bestowed a racist mock award on colleagues who displayed Aboriginal-like behaviour, a court has heard.

Rolfe made the claims earlier this week in Alice Springs during the inquest into the death of Kumanjayi Walker.

Rolfe shot Walker three times while trying to arrest him in Yuendumu, about 300km from Alice Springs, in November 2019.

The 19-year-old Warlpiri man stabbed Rolfe with a pair of scissors shortly before he was shot by the then constable three times.

Rolfe was found not guilty in March 2022 of charges of murder and manslaughter relating to Walker’s death.

On Monday, Rolfe claimed that racist language was “normalised in the NT police force”.

Rolfe said he had been told the tactical response group (TRG) held an annual awards night where a “Coon of the Year” award, that was also known by another name, was awarded.

The officer who was given the award was made to wear a toga and carry a wooden club on the night afterwards, the inquest heard.

Rolfe also said he was told there were photos and videos of the awards night, but he had not seen them.

The NT police commissioner, Michael Murphy, confirmed on Tuesday morning that the claims were being investigated.

On Thursday, Ian Freckelton KC, representing the NT police, appeared at the inquest into Walker’s death and said four statements had been made by police who were or are senior officers in the TRG.

They had all rejected Rolfe’s claims, and outlined that they had been hurtful, Freckelton said.

In the statements, the officers clarify that there was an award known as the Noogooda, Nugada or Nugeda award, with one saying that the name of the award had been changed in 2022 “as the TRG did not want the award to be misconstrued or associated with any racial issues”.

Another officer said it was a “made-up” word and was “awarded to the person who has displayed outstanding lack of excellence in the area of personal hygiene or feral behaviour”.

The award presented is an improvised weapon that was seized during riots in Port Keats, the officer said, which was a branch of a kapok tree “that resembles a medieval club or a prehistoric man club”.

“Over the years there has been lighthearted banter between detectives and operators [members of the tactical response group] that identifies operators as Neanderthals or knuckle-draggers.

“This was the catalyst for the award. The TRG office has been known as the cave since I joined and this was the link to the club.

“This award was never linked to Indigenous people.”

Another member said that the award was once given to a member who placed a stool sample in a work fridge next to colleague’s lunches, in order to demonstrate the sort of conduct which it was designed to recognise.

“In 2022, a decision was made to conduct a thorough review of all TRG practices, facilities, equipment and documentation.

“The name of the Nugeda award was changed as there was a concern that some people may take the word/meaning out of context.

“By then the unit was a lot better educated and more sensitive to the impact of perceptions and misunderstandings from the Walker Coronial Inquest.”

An operator also said that there had been fancy dress at TRG functions where some operators had dressed in togas, as described by Rolfe, but also in other outfits such as Fat Bastard from the Austin Powers movies.

“During the entirety of my service in TRG I never experienced any racism, in fact it was the exact opposite,” the officer said.

On Wednesday, Rolfe denied a suggestion from counsel assisting Peggy Dwyer SC that he had deliberately linked one senior officer to the claims as retribution for evidence that officer had given to the inquest which was critical of Rolfe.

The hearing continues.

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