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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Lorena Allam

Zachary Rolfe tells inquest ‘I’ve been banned from all police stations’ but refuses to answer other questions

Zachary Rolfe
Zachary Rolfe arriving at the inquest in Alice Springs on Wednesday. Rolfe was found not guilty of murder after a NT supreme court trial earlier this year. Photograph: Aaron Bunch/AAP

The Northern Territory police officer who shot and killed Kumanjayi Walker has refused to answer questions from a coroner that could “expose” him to a penalty while telling the inquest he’s now working in a Darwin office because “I’ve been banned from all police stations”.

Zachary Rolfe on Wednesday declined to answer 14 categories of questions about his involvement in the 2019 shooting or what counsel assisting the inquest said were “obviously racist” and “sexist and homophobic” texts he exchanged with fellow officers. Rolfe wouldn’t answer questions regarding other use-of-force incidents he has been involved in arguing his answers could expose him to a penalty.

Kumanjayi Walker, 19, was shot three times by Rolfe in the remote NT community of Yuendumu in November 2019. Rolfe was found not guilty of murder and two alternative charges after a six-week trial in the NT supreme court in Darwin earlier this year.

The inquest into Walker’s death has previously heard lengthy evidence about Rolfe’s involvement in text message exchanges in which officers described Aboriginal people as “losers”, “grubby fucks”, “coons” and “niggas”, and discussed using force to “towel them up”.

Rolfe told another officer local people were “neanderthals who drink too much alcohol” and that he had a “licence to towel up the locals”.

The inquest has heard that police records show there were 46 use-of-force incidents reported about Rolfe between December 2016 and November 2019. He was cited for failing to activate his body-worn camera 13 times in three years.

Rolfe’s “objections list”, supplied to the court on Wednesday, included questions relating to cases of “arguably racist, sexist or homophobic” text messages, as well as texts relating to the dissemination of body-worn video. It also covered texts about the use of illicit and prescription drugs; suggestions of false information being supplied in his application to the NT police force; and nine separate use-of-force incidents.

Counsel for the NT police Ian Freckleton SC read to the court the list of 14 objections. The court heard that disciplinary proceedings were ongoing in relation to four of the matters including allegations Rolfe used excessive force.

Freckleton said disciplinary action in the matters was “partially resolved” but would resume on 13 and 14 December.

The court heard Rolfe was formally cautioned over his involvement in an interview with the Channel 7 Spotlight program in May.

Rolfe had received “remedial advice” in relation to several incidents on the objections list, Freckleton said.

He explained to the court that the advice consisted “of an assertive conversation” with a senior police officer. It was not a formal disciplinary outcome, Freckleton said, but was “intended to provide assistance to them when something has been identified which is inappropriate in the way that they have conducted themselves and they can be guided to do better”.

Earlier, counsel assisting the inquest, Peggy Dwyer, read to Rolfe the contents of one text exchange he had with a fellow officer in April 2019. In the exchange, the fellow officer said “Heard you had a rough arvo yesterday, grubby fucks” and Rolfe replied “No bra, just slightly annoying haha. Coons, man”.

Dwyer asked on Wednesday: “Do you agree, Const Rolfe, that the content of that message is obviously racist?”

Rolfe replied: “I wish to exercise my right and claim the penalty privilege on the basis my answers might tend to expose me to a penalty.”

Rolfe had earlier agreed with Dwyer that he did not have much involvement with Aboriginal people growing up in Canberra and had never been to the NT before working there as a police officer in 2016.

Rolfe was asked about his time in the Australian army between 2010 and 2015 and his tours of Afghanistan. He said he left the army because “I felt like moving on”.

He joined the NT police and commenced training in Darwin in March 2016. Under questioning by Dwyer, Rolfe said he did receive some cultural awareness training during his time in the force, but “to be honest, the cultural training that we did, I haven’t found the specific use of that in the job because I’m responding to humans”.

“Human problems of humans asking for help, and then humans breaking the law,” he said. “As a police officer, I’m responding to a job where someone has called for help or someone has broken the law. I’ve not been called to a cultural issue.”

Rolfe said police were taught “how to respect everyone – Aboriginal people are included in that”.

He told the court that after finishing his training he asked to be sent to Alice Springs because he “heard it was the busiest place where [I’d] be able to get the most experience in the quickest time”. He wanted to improve and learn “as fast as possible”.

Last week, Rolfe’s legal team applied to join a case brought by a fellow police officer, Lee Bauwens, who is seeking an injunction restraining the coroner and other parties from calling him to “give evidence or answer questions on matters that could give rise to a claim for penalty privilege”.

Lawyers for Bauwens and Rolfe are arguing that even though the coroner can provide witnesses with indemnity against any charges which may be laid as a result of their evidence, this may not protect them from internal disciplinary proceedings.

They are arguing the coroner does not have the power to compel a person to answer a question, notwithstanding a claim of common law penalty privilege.

That matter is due to be heard in the supreme court in Darwin before Judge Sonia Brownhill on 22 November.

Rolfe told the inquest on Wednesday he was still working in the NT police force in a Darwin-based office role because “I’ve been banned from all police stations”.

Rolfe was working with the “digital transformations” team in Darwin but has been on leave to appear at the inquest.

NT police subsequently said in a statement on Wednesday: “There are ongoing disciplinary matters that have not been resolved. Const Rolfe cannot return to operational duties until these are resolved and he completes operational safety tactical training.”

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