I am talking to Joe James Japanangka by Skype. He was in an office in Lajamanu — 800 kilometres south-west of Darwin. I am at home in Darwin. Our conversation was an unexceptional use of modern technology

Japanangka is not happy.

He tells me: “We like the police being in our community — but one thing — we don’t like having to talk to Darwin. They ask ‘Where are you living?’ I tell them ‘I’m living 500 kilometres south-west of Katherine.’ They say ‘How far’?”

Too many silly questions. I said to them: “I’m wasting my time talking to you.”

I put the phone down. We don’t call the police any more, too many silly questions.”

Japanangka is cranky about the effect of decisions made a long way away from his home that affect the lives and safety of his community. Lajamanu is home to 1000 or so Warlpiri and Gurindji people and is perched on the edge of the vastness of the Tanami desert to the south and the tropical watershed of the Victoria River to the north.

One of those decisions was to divert all after-hours calls to police to a call centre based in Darwin.

This means that at the close of the day shift in Alice Springs, Katherine, Lajamanu and dozens of smaller townships scattered across the NT that any call to police — whether to report grog-running, anti-social behaviour or domestic violence — is answered by a NT Police auxiliary sitting in a Darwin call-centre.

Concerns about the call centre’s operations have been around for a while.

In March last year the man who is key to NT Labor’s tenuous grip on power, independent Gerry Wood, raised his concerns with Police and Chief Minister Paul Henderson.

Wood told the NT Parliament that he had been hung up on twice when dialling 000 from Alice Springs earlier that month.

“I tried again and after two and a half minutes someone did answer, but I was disconnected without someone speaking to me. I’ve also heard stories from local people of the operators of the call centre not knowing street and business in Alice Springs.”

Henderson’s response was that having a single call centre was “a much better use of police resources”.

Things went quiet for a few months until early October last year when the 21 members of the Lajamanu Law and Justice Group — also known as Kurdiji (shield) wrote to NT Police Commissioner John McRoberts.

In part, they told McRoberts that:

“The Kurdiji (Lajamanu Law and Justice Group) along with the Lajamanu Night Patrol are concerned by this recent practice of diverting phone calls to Darwin and believe that it leads to significant delays in response time, danger to the community, miscommunication, erosion of the relationship with and confidence in police and a significant under-reporting of serious crime.

The Kurdiji believe that significant delays in police responses obviously presents increased risk of escalation of incidents with corresponding … risks to public safety.

Many community members have expressed great frustration in dealing with telephone operators unfamiliar with Lajamanu people and place names and spending valuable time explaining and identifying places that local police would recognise at first instance.

Many community sites and houses are referred to by their colloquial names rather than a street address. Local police are generally aware of these terms. The frustration of the many community members has now led to people not wanting to call police.

The response from McRoberts supported the call centre diversions and assured the Kurdiji that the NT Police were:

… committed to customer service and keeping people safe and I can assure you that the level of service provided to the people of Lajamanu … is professional, efficient and customer service focused.

Apparently that confidence wasn’t reflected by McRoberts’ serving members.

Two days after McRoberts wrote to the Kurdiji, the NT Police Association’s Vince Kelly told the ABC that:

“… the [police call] centre is understaffed and the situation shows the need for a review of police numbers. The government needs to acknowledge there’s a resourcing issue, not just in the communications centre but across NT Police,” Mr Kelly said

A few weeks later the police call centre was the focus of anger from residents at the small town of Katherine. The NT News reported on an incident where:

 … a [call centre] operator confused Katherine with Alice Springs.

Top Saddlery owner Geoff Newton said local cops should answer their own phones instead of being centralised. “If it had been an emergency there’s no guarantee the result would have been different. (The centralised line) is a systematic failure. It’s an absolute joke and it’s not working,” … “But it’s still happening and it won’t change until someone’s bashed or killed,” he said.

That last concern — that the centralised call centre operation won’t be fixed until someone suffers serious injury or worse — is echoed by the Kurdiji of Lajamanu.

In a press release issued yesterday, they noted:

“We think the current system of sending the phone calls up to a call centre in Darwin … will eventually lead to a death in our community.

“We are worried that the above issues are taking away people’s confidence in police and hurting the relationships we have with formed with our local police.

“We know it is not the local policemen’s fault. We would like to work together with the police to make Lajamanu a safe and grog-free community and this current practice stops us doing that.”

This story throws up any number of ironies.

I first met Joe James Japanangka at Lajamanu in 1986 when I lived at Lajamanu for a few months.

Back then, contact with the outside world was limited to a road, rough and dusty in the dry, and boggy and often closed in the wet. There was a regular weekly mail plane but there were no telephones in town — we relied upon a very scratchy VJY radio system.

Now every person in Lajamanu has — or has access to — a mobile phone. Many people use the internet as a matter of course. And of course I can talk to Joe James on Skype in a second.

Back then Lajamanu had two Aboriginal police aides. Joe James Japanangka was one, his fellow Kurdiji member Geoffrey Mathews Jakamarra the other. They share more than two decades of policing experience at Lajamanu and most likely know more about “the job” there than anyone.

Now Lajamanu has no Aboriginal police aides (now called Aboriginal community police officers). Funding for the position has apparently been shifted to another community and police are trying to fill the Lajamanu position.

Back then few in Darwin or Canberra knew or cared much about day-to-day life in Lajamanu.

Now — thanks to the NT intervention — government in Darwin and Canberra seem to care an awful lot.

Now we have the federal government’s Closing the Gap and Darwin’s Working Futures.

In September 2011 members of the Kurdiji and local, Territory and federal governments signed the Lajamanu “Local Implementation Plan”, which included the following statement of commitment:

“We will all work together to Close the Gap. Through respect and collaboration we will create a better future for all of our children. This Local Implementation Plan is our commitment to create a long lasting partnership between the people of Lajamanu and governments.”

Peter Fray

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