ALHR calls for independent investigation system for deaths occurring in police custody

February 21, 2012

The President of Australian Lawyers for Human Rights (‘ALHR’), Stephen Keim, today called upon the Northern Territory government to act to ensure that a properly resourced investigation unit be established that is independent of the police force and capable of responding quickly and proactively when an incident occurs. ‘One acceptable model’, said Mr. Keim, ‘would be a fast response ‘Ombudsman Police Custody Investigation Unit’. It is important that such a body be at the scene quickly and is both independent and capable of carrying out an effective investigation.’

‘The recent death in custody in the Alice Springs watch house is an important reminder of the absence of independent investigators at the scene of such incidents. One of the primary lessons learnt from the Palm Island coronial inquest in Queensland was that police investigating police is far from best practice and may compromise the ability to ascertain the causes of death which occur when a person is in police custody.’

‘The Northern Territory would benefit from following a Northern Ireland example. In Northern Ireland, the Ombudsman is funded and authorised to attend the scene of any death or serious injury involving police. In Northern Ireland, the Police Ombudsman of Northern Ireland (‘PONI’) attends the scene within an hour of any death or serious injury involving police to commence their independent investigation. They are distinguished from the police by wearing orange PONI jackets.’

‘Investigations of these incidents must be independent, carried out swiftly, proactively and be funded and appropriately resourced with qualified experts’ said Mr. Keim.

Mr. Keim also called on the Australian government to ratify the Second Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (OPCAT) to ensure independent monitoring and inspection of police lock-ups and detention facilities on an ongoing basis. ‘The ratification and implementation of the protocol will assist in ensuring that conditions and practices in Australian detention facilities are best practice. This is another proactive way of preventing deprivation, mistreatment or death from occurring in custodial situations. It will also provide a reputational dividend for those police services who have established good practices confirming to the world by the reports of the investigators that Australia maintains the high standards required by international human rights instruments.’