There’s a link between the over-policing of Indigenous kids and our people dying in custody

30 Apr 2021

Our children’s innocence is stolen, and the system presents them with a life in and out of prison

If Australia is serious about ending Black deaths in custody, we need to put an end to the overpolicing of Black communities. The criminalising of our children can kickstart a lifetime within the police and prison system.

In the same week of the 30th anniversary of the royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody, in a since-removed segment that aired on Channel Seven, it was suggested that Queensland police liaison officers be present within primary schools, which raises serious concerns in the community about criminalisation of children as young as four.

We also had the New South Wales police minister, David Elliott, tell Channel Seven’s Sunrise program that “we don’t have a race problem in Australia”. As a white man with no lived experience of racism in Australia, Elliott’s comments are outdated and offensive.

I spent my primary school years growing up in Redfern, where my siblings, cousins and our friends would wander between our house on Pitt Street to their houses, on the Block. From Redfern Oval to Raglan Street basketball courts or the community centre to the settlement, this was our local playground.

We would often get “move on” orders by police if we weren’t accompanied by an adult. The overpolicing of us as Black youth was normalised back then and nothing has changed since.

I don’t remember my first interaction with the police, but I have vivid memories of TJ Hickey, whose life was taken just around the corner from where I lived. It was 2004, TJ was 17 and I was eight years old.

TJ had been innocently riding his bike when a police pursuit ensued and chased him into a car park where he later died. Our community was left shocked, and immediately TJ was criminalised in the media.

As a child, I learned that the world could be so dark. The tragic and unwarranted death of TJ taught me the fate of Black kids in my community. The lack of accountability on the part of the police and the system rightfully sparked riots in Redfern. Our community demanded justice; 17 years on, not one officer has been charged. We were angry then and we still are now.

In 2017, my brother Tane Chatfield died in Tamworth correctional centre. Tane was accused of a crime that he didn’t commit and held on remand for two years, but it was the overpolicing of our community that led him there. On the night of the alleged crime, Tane was home with his partner and his son. He was expected to be released from custody within days of his death.

The overall findings of Tane’s inquest saw the NSW coroners court give the same recommendations from the royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody 26 years before. In this instance, we have a system designed to fail us with police investigating police. Independent investigations led by the families is what is needed. If the system was just, there would be no stone unturned.

When we have a society that doesn’t acknowledge the connections between the overpolicing of us as kids to our people dying in custody, we have a problem. Our children’s innocence is stolen; the system presents them with a life in and out of prison.

We are the most incarcerated people on earth but we are not born to die in custody. Until we dismantle the system, there will be no justice and Black people will continue to die. We must defund the police and abolish prisons. Our people have existed peacefully for millennia without them.

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