‘Paperless’ death in custody shows lack of police accountability

28th May 2015

The tragic death in police custody of a man arrested under controversial Northern Territory ‘paperless arrest’ legislation highlights the need for authorities to be held accountable for people held in detention, the Australian Lawyers Alliance (ALA) said today.

The man reportedly died in the Darwin city watch house last Thursday night after being arrested for drinking in public. The Northern Territory government has defended the legislation, saying the reduction in paperwork allowed police to do their job more efficiently.

ALA spokesperson and barrister Greg Barns said the man’s death demonstrated the critical need for authorities to prioritise the safety of people in custody over the institutional drive to cut costs.

“Tragedies like this occur when police are permitted by governments not to concern themselves with appropriate accountability mechanisms,” Mr Barns said.

“In the cases of people with mental and physical illness, for example, recording details about their condition or medication is critical – if police do not have this information, individuals can die.

“Paperwork is about accountability.  Coronial inquests across Australia over many years have recommended that custodial authorities keep proper records of persons who come into detention,” Mr Barns said.

Mr Barns said that the lack of proper custody records also left police vulnerable when things go wrong.

“Paperwork is as much about protecting police from allegations made as it is about ensuring there is accountability,” Mr Barns said.

“This is not bureaucracy and paper shuffling.  It is about ensuring vital information is available to courts, individuals and their families and to coroners.”

Mr Barns said that the ALA would also continue to advocate for greater independence in the investigation of deaths in custody.

Tags: Northern Territory Access to justice police powers