The inquest into a death of an Indigenous woman in Western Australia exposed a string of failings by police and medical staff. Ahead of the coroner’s findings, Calla Wahlquist reports on Ms Dhu’s last days and how supporters want public outrage to force an overhaul of the justice system
On 4 August 2014, three hours after doctors had stopped trying to revive Ms Dhu, Western Australian police sent out a press release.
“About 12.30pm today,” it read, “a 22-year-old woman being held in police custody at the South Hedland police station was taken to the Hedland Health Campus after alerting officers to the fact she was not feeling well. Upon arrival at the hospital the woman’s condition deteriorated and she passed away.”
A second statement followed two days later. The woman had been held in “lawful custody” since 2 August, it said. She had twice advised police of feeling unwell and been taken to hospital on “two separate occasions”. On both occasions police had been given certificates declaring she was medically fit to be held in custody.
Shortly after receiving the second statement, this reporter received a call from the head of the police media unit who wanted to stress that police had done the right thing. They had taken her to hospital – twice – and been told she was fine. This was very distressing for police officers, he said. What more could they do but trust the doctors?
Two years later, at a coronial inquest into her death, 16 police officers and one assistant commissioner repeated that argument in front of the shaking heads of Dhu’s family, holding up the medical certificates like a protective shield.
On Friday Dhu’s family will return to the coroner’s court in Perth to hear the state coroner Ros Fogliani’s findings on the four-week inquest.
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