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

Zachary Rolfe raises questions of police racism during questioning in inquest into Kumanjayi Walker’s death

Zachary Rolfe leaves the inquest into the death of Kumanjayi Walker last week.
Zachary Rolfe leaves the inquest into the death of Kumanjayi Walker last week. Rolfe said he had never seen an NT police officer treat anyone differently because of their race. Photograph: Rudi Maxwell/AAP

Zachary Rolfe had not been in Alice Springs long before deciding he wanted to leave.

It was 2016, and as the former Australian soldier – who had served in Afghanistan – struggled to settle in as a Northern Territory police officer, he realised he’d felt more at home in Kabul.

Perhaps he should never have been there; as the Northern Territory coroner’s court heard this week, Rolfe failed to properly disclose multiple relevant matters on his police application, any of which could have dashed his prospects.

While Rolfe was coming to grips with his new life, a teenage Warlpiri boy named Kumanjayi Walker was struggling with far deeper problems. Walker was considered profoundly deaf in one ear, had been born with suspected foetal alcohol spectrum disorder and was often in trouble with police.

Three years later, Rolfe and Walker would come face to face in a dark room at a house in Yuendumu, a remote community 300km north-west of Alice Springs.

It was November 2019. Rolfe was trying to arrest Walker, who stabbed him with a pair of scissors.

He shot Walker dead, an event which led to Rolfe being charged with murder – for which he was later found not guilty – and, indirectly, to his dismissal from the force.

As Rolfe sat in the witness box for hour upon hour in an Alice Springs court room this week, it became clear that the inquest into Walker’s death was increasingly focused on a singular point: was Rolfe the exception in the NT police force? Or was he the norm?

“I would say that I am a product of my society or subculture,” Rolfe said.

“And it did rub off on me.”

The court heard Rolfe repeatedly used racist language, snubbed rules about the use of body-worn video cameras, boasted about jobs where violence was used – and expressed a desire for more – and admitted to resentment and a lack of trust in the brass and professional standards command.

Some references in text messages to violence, including needing it to “recentre his head”, were a reference to the therapeutic impact for him of boxing, he said, rather than a need for him to lash out in uniform.

He would brag unprofessionally or talk shit, he admitted, about some jobs, including when messaging friends about “mashing” an Aboriginal man’s head against a wall, or chasing an ice dealer in a car while driving through red lights on the wrong side of the road at 130 km/h. He insisted he was in policing to help people, and not for the adrenaline.

And he gave evidence about how racist language was “normalised” in the Alice Springs police station, where he heard such terms daily, and about a racist mock-award handed out in the territory’s elite policing unit to the officer who behaved “most like an Aboriginal”.

Despite all this – the racism that Rolfe heard each day in the station and which was displayed in messages between him and other officers – Rolfe said he had never seen an NT police officer treat anyone differently because of their race.

Moreover, he did not believe he treated Aboriginal people differently in his work, despite his use of racist language and the multiple complaints about him allegedly using unnecessary force against Aboriginal men and boys.

Just as Rolfe said he grappled with “two worlds” in Alice Springs, black and white, coroner Elisabeth Armitage was being asked to grapple with seemingly contradictory ideas: racism was everywhere and nowhere; violence appearing to be the point, and yet not the point at all.

Moments of reflection

Over the course of the week in court, Rolfe gradually took shape and evolved from two dimensions to three.

There appeared to be moments of contrition and reflection.

He spoke of gaining an understanding that the use of racist language could dehumanise people and he offered to meet with Walker’s family in private in an effort at “reconciliation” – an offer they rejected.

He said he did not have enough of an understanding of intergenerational trauma to expand on how people in Yuendumu would have reacted to his colleagues brandishing longarm guns, given the horror of the Coniston massacre.

He also regretted using the media as a “tool”, though noted he felt it also been used as a tool against him, saying that, given he was found not guilty, there had not actually been a need to engage with journalists.

And he agreed that perhaps he should never have been in Yuendumu that night, as he had not disclosed to his supervisor that he was taking antidepressants, which had potential side-effects listed, including: harming or killing yourself or others; over-excitement; and losing touch with reality.

His decision to speak expansively about racism within the force – despite counsel assisting Dr Peggy Dwyer SC questioning his motivations for doing so – resulted in some of the most compelling evidence regarding the attitudes of NT police heard at the inquest.

Rolfe said the tactical response group, which he described as the “tip of the spear” in the NT police, bestowed a mock award – known as the “coon of the year” – on the officer who behaved “most like an Aboriginal”. The winner was given a club and made to wear a toga.

High-ranking current and former members said this was incorrect, although there had been an award that was renamed in 2022 – after the start of the inquest – to ensure it was not misconstrued as racist.

That award was given to the officer who behaved “most like a neanderthal”, with the winner also given a makeshift weapon made from the branch of a kapok tree “that resembles a medieval club or a prehistoric man-club”, one of the officers said in a statement to the court.

NT police are investigating the claims.

Use of force

At other times, Rolfe was unbending. There was little concession made about 46 incidents in which issues had been raised regarding his use of force.

Eight were of particular interest during his evidence, all involving Aboriginal men and boys: men pushed forcefully into walls or claiming they were thrown down hills; a boy hiding in a wheelie bin having the lid closed and the bin pushed to the ground.

Dwyer said that some of these incidents demonstrated Rolfe favoured using force rather than verbal commands, and that a pattern could be discerned in them, including in the fatal shooting of Walker.

Rolfe disagreed, saying an analysis of the 3,176 jobs he was involved in as an NT police officer demonstrated something else.

“[There’s] eight jobs that are being talked about, the actual pattern is that I have 3,168 jobs where … there’s no issues in how I’ve acted,” he said.

He also forcefully rejected any suggestion he lied during his trial when he claimed Walker put his hand on his gun, after he was shown multiple examples of him discussing the shooting with friends and journalists prior to the trial and making no reference to it.

Rolfe’s manner in the witness box was largely calm, unruffled. A man clad in light blue whose mind was as clear as a cloudless sky.

But occasionally, he slipped into frustration, providing a glimpse of what he described in his time in the force as a “short fuse”. This was perhaps unavoidable in a court room that was punctuated by ill-feeling.

On Thursday, members of the Yuendumu community gathered, as they had every day of the inquest, at a park opposite the court.

There had been no threats shouted at Rolfe since Monday, when tensions boiled over, but one man started abusing him now, despite the efforts of police and others gathered there – a single voice of aggression in an otherwise muted crowd.

It was here that lawyers for the families gathered each day to explain what had been happening in court.

This was particularly necessary this week: despite the court being filled with about 20 lawyers, including some considered among the most brilliant silks in Australia, a Warlpiri interpreter could not be found.

From this spot, not only is the court in full view, but so too the Alice Springs police station. The Yuendumu community, the police and the court. All within metres of each other – yet miles apart.

The inquest continues.

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