Recent accusations that police in the Northern Territory have been heavy handed fail to recognise that the police are victims of the dysfunctional communication systems of the Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER) as much as the Aboriginal people they are employed to serve.

As last week’s report from the NTER Review Board points out, the NTER has produced confusion, fear and anger in many Aboriginal communities and a marked increase in Aboriginal people’s distrust of government.

There is at least one family group in Arnhem Land that blames the policy for the death of their 22-year-old son Clinton Pamkal, who committed suicide after he escaped police custody eight weeks ago. Clinton’s death has been a focus of media attention over the last two weeks, including a segment on the current events program The 7.30 Report.

Clinton’s relationship with his 15-year-old promised wife was accepted by both his family and hers. They were young people in love, and of the correct kinship relationship to be husband and wife.

However, she was under the Northern Territory age of consent of 16 years. When the police found out, Clinton was charged with carnal knowledge, and ordered not to see her.

Some time later he returned to the community to visit family (and be near his girlfriend), transgressing a condition of his bail. He was arrested by Federal Police officers based at the police station at Bulman, in Central Arnhem Land, recently established as part of the NTER.

The Federal Police who arrested Clinton had only been in the region a few days. Though they did not know it, they had been placed into a situation in which they were set up to fail.

These police officers — and the Aboriginal community in which Clinton and his girlfriend lived — were failed by Federal and Northern Territory governments that had not identified, or resolved, fundamental flaws in the delivery of NTER services to remote Aboriginal communities.

The capacity of Federal Police Officers to provide appropriate safety for this remote Aboriginal community was undermined in the following ways:

  1. The police had received grossly inadequate training in Aboriginal community policing.
  2. The police had received no training at all in the protocols and cultural customs of the community in which they were based.
  3. Police Officers had not been introduced to community elders, or even advised to seek advice from them, or from family members, should a major incident arise.
  4. These officers did not have the cultural guidance of an Aboriginal Community Police Officer.
  5. Only one Northern Territory Police Officer was based at this station. At the time of Clinton’s arrest this person was in Katherine.

Without the safety network of cultural knowledge, the police over-reacted to Clinton’s escape from custody, calling in reinforcements from Katherine, over 300 kms away on mostly dirt road, and conducting a house-to-house search at dawn, causing serious damage to community relationships. (Ask yourself how you would feel if every room in your house was searched at dawn because the police were seeking a young neighbour for a less than major crime).

These actions on the part of the police undoubtedly escalated the situation. No drugs or alcohol were involved. It was simply a matter of a young man in the bush, who was confused, frightened and hunted.

The principal legal officer of the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency, Glen Dooley, describes Clinton’s death as an avoidable tragedy. He is correct.

But we need to recognise that this was a tragedy not only for Clinton and his family, but for the police as well. The government failed these police officers through not giving them the cultural knowledge tools they needed to protect themselves and Clinton, and his family.

This week’s report by the NTER Review Board argues that the NTER must remain a national priority but that it needs to be based on a new relationship.

In re-thinking this new relationship, the Northern Territory and Federal governments need to consider not only the damage that has been done to Aboriginal communities, but also the hurt that has been sustained by public servants who have not been given the support or cultural knowledge they need to succeed in their jobs. In its reappraisal of the NTER a first priority has to be establishing communication strategies and cultural safety nets that will ensure better relationships between Aboriginal people and those who work at the coalface of the emergency response.

We need systems that pre-empt avoidable tragedies such as the death of Clinton Pamkal.

Claire Smith is a Visiting Research Professor with the Institute of Advanced Study for Humanity at the University of Newcastle. Her home institution is Flinders University. She has conducted research with Aboriginal communities in the Katherine East region for the last 20 years. With Gary Jackson she recently co-authored A Community Based Review of the Northern Territory Emergency Response.