Racism is not “widespread” within the Northern Territory police force, a top officer has told an inquest into the police shooting death of Warlpiri teenager Kumanjayi Walker.
The NT assistant commissioner, Travis Wurst, also said he approved a specialist team to attend the remote community of Yuendumu prior to Walker’s death, but he believed the officers were only providing support and relief to local police.
Walker, 19, was shot three times by NT police Const Zachary Rolfe during an attempted arrest by the immediate response team (IRT) in Yuendumu, north-west of Alice Springs, in November 2019. Rolfe was found not guilty of murder earlier this year.
A three-month inquest is examining the events surrounding the death of Walker.
Wurst told the inquest on Monday it was his “understanding” that the specialist team, generally tasked with apprehending dangerous suspects or operating in high-risk situations, were in Yuendumu to provide support and relief for local officers and were not there in their capacity as an IRT.
The inquest heard the IRT carried two AR-15 assault rifles and a beanbag gun that fires less-lethal projectiles, and had a police dog unit with them when they went to arrest Walker.
“What I was approving was members of the IRT who were all general duties members to attend to assist at Yuendumu, in my mind, I wasn’t deploying the IRT for IRT functions,” Wurst told the coroner, Elisabeth Armitage.
Wurst said it was inappropriate the officers were carrying military-style assault weapons such as AR-15s and other long-arm weapons.
Counsel assisting the coroner, Peggy Dwyer, asked if there was any justification for general duties officers to be carrying beanbag rounds and long arms?
Wurst said: “No.”
Dwyer said: “You wouldn’t expect for general duties AR-15S to be carried around in the community?”
Dwyer: “Do you accept that for community members in Yuendumu seeing police that they are unfamiliar with carrying long rifles would be frightening?”
Wurst: “It would have been confronting, yes.”
Wurst agreed it was “wholly inappropriate” that IRT officers carried the weapons after a funeral into the community in their capacity as general duties officers.
He said he was told about Walker allegedly threatening two officers with an axe after absconding from a drug and alcohol treatment centre in Alice Springs to attend a funeral.
He said he conducted a welfare check via email with Sgt Christopher Hand, one of the officers involved, asking if he was “OK” and referring to Warlpiri Walkers as his “nemesis”.
“I see the Warlpiris with a surname of Walker are still ours and my nemesis,” he wrote.
Asked by Dwyer why he sent the email, Wurst said he wanted to check in on the officers involved and that he did not mean any offence by the word nemesis.
“It was a welfare check as I said to [then] Sen Const Hand,” Wurst said. “I must assist the court by explaining the word nemesis [is an] extremely poor choice of words.”
He said he was referencing the “challenging and violent” interactions he had had with members of the Walker family.
Sgt Hand replied to Wurst’s email that Walker didn’t mean any serious harm during the axe incident and that he was OK.
Under questioning from Andrew Boe, a lawyer representing several families of the Yuendumu community, including Walker’s, Wurst denied there was widespread racism in the force.
“I would suggest that racism, to call it that, is not widespread,” Wurst said. “It’s very sporadic and in very small pockets.
“It is not endemic across the agency and is not widespread. We however, need to be aware of it, be mindful of it, call it out when we see it, and deal with it.”
Boe referred to several messages sent by Rolfe and between serving members of the NT police officers including offensive slurs referring to Aboriginal people and sexist and homophobic content.
Wurst said he did not work within the professional standards team so was unable to provide specific details around the prevalence of racist sentiments.
He said 11.2% of the NT police workforce was Indigenous but he was not aware of how many serving police officers identify as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. He said the state had the highest rate of Indigenous employees in any police force jurisdiction.
The inquest continues.