The Northern Territory’s top police officer said he would not “throw anyone under the bus” over a video that showed a police officer threatening to “belt” Aboriginal teenagers and telling them: “I am in the mood to fucking lose my job tonight.”
The footage, published by the ABC following a freedom of information request, is taken from a CCTV camera inside an Alice Springs police watch house in 2018. It shows police processing five Aboriginal teenagers, aged 12 to 16, who had been arrested for allegedly driving a stolen car.
At one point, one of the boys is standing between two police officers at a table and is told to to remove some of his clothing. He mutters: “Every day, bro. I’d smack you in the head every day.”
One of the police officers, a non-Indigenous man, pushes the boy down on the table and twists his arm behind his back and says: “What’d you say? Did you threaten me?”
He continues: “Every day? Every day? Today’s your day, you little cunt. Don’t fucking put off for tomorrow what you can do today. You can’t fucking do it, can you, because you’re a little cunt. That’s all you are … fucking waste of space.”
At one point he appears to have a hand on the back of the boy’s neck. That officer and the other officer, an Aboriginal man, then appear to push the boy to sit down at a bench. The first officer then turns to address the other boys.
“Sit the fuck down,” he says. “Threaten a police officer in a fucking police station, get knocked the fuck out.
“Anyone else want to be fucking smart? I’m right in the mood to fucking lose my job tonight and I don’t mind losing it over belting the fuck out of one of you little cunts. Do you understand me? Good. When you’re given an instruction, you follow it and that’s it.”
The police commissioner, Jamie Chalker, said it was “a sad reflection to see something that’s two and a half years [old] get the prominence that it has”, and that domestic violence toward Aboriginal women was “the greater concern for me”.
“Policing is an incredibly hard job and that’s a snapshot of where sometimes we don’t always get it right, but I’m not going to throw anyone under the bus here,” Chalker said.
“I think the footage speaks for itself. The language speaks for itself. And I think anyone who views that with a level of sympathy and empathy and who is prepared to walk in the footsteps of police who have been there and done that will have a greater level of understanding that at some point in time things just get too full. And that’s a really sad outcome.”
Chalker said he would not release the outcome of disciplinary proceedings taken against two of the officers after the incident was investigated by the NT ombudsman, saying that would breach the officers’ privacy.
“The fact of the matter is that footage is now out there in the public domain,” he said. “And I hasten to add that there’s far more egregious issues that are occurring every single day that require far more public concern than that particular action of an individual who unfortunately found themselves in a position where their lot was probably a bit too much for that day.”
The Territory’s chief minister, Michael Gunnar, said the behaviour of police in the footage “didn’t meet expectations”. But he said he was confident that NT police had, since the royal commission into the protection and detention of children, been undergoing the necessary cultural change.
“You can’t change things overnight but you can do the work and I think that starts from the top, and I think the police commissioner is doing an outstanding job leading that work as are others in the Territory,” Gunnar said.
He added: “We also agree that there’s an expectation on the standards that police set for themselves, and there’s probably no harder judge on a police officer than a fellow police officer.”
Amnesty International Indigenous adviser Rodney Dillon said the behaviour of police shown in the footage was “not just a national disgrace, but an international disgrace”.
“It does nothing for the relationship between police and Aboriginal people in Australia,” the palawa man said.
He said the incident was yet another example that showed police should not be allowed to investigate police, and said no children should be taken to a police watch house.
“Not much has changed in 50 years, has it?” Dillon said. “The police are not safe to deal with Aboriginal kids.”
The Northern Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (Naaja) made a complaint on behalf of the boys to the NT ombudsman. The ombudsman’s 2018-19 annual report says it was “an example of a complaint that has been made regularly in recent times”.
It says the CCTV footage “clearly shows two officers substantially exceeding the bounds of appropriate conduct in respect of a number of the youths, from the perspective of the force and language used and their treatment of the youths”.
The report says it also flagged other issues with NT police, including the failure of police officers to turn on their body cameras during the arrest.
The ombudsman also recommended that police receive remedial advice about the use of rude or offensive language, the failure to conduct a proper search, failure to adequately respond to the conduct of the officers against whom disciplinary action was taken and inappropriate interaction with a complainant following the making of the complaint.
The NT ombudsman’s office received 589 complaints about police conduct in 2018-19 and 600 in 2019-20. Of those, 57 complaints in 2018-19 and 79 complaints in 2019-20 were considered serious, and concerned issues including unreasonable use of force and failure to turn on body cameras.
The office of the NT ombudsman and Naaja have been contacted for comment.