For Kwementyaye Briscoe, Wednesday January 4 was just another too-hot day in a too-short life.

Kwementyaye spent a few hours with family cooling off at the local pool before heading down to the bed of the Todd River to have a few drinks with friends in the sandy shade of its massive river red gums. During the day the temperature had topped 40° and a light sprinkle of rain hadn’t done much to take heat out of the day. Later his group moved a few kilometres away to a suburban park as the sun fell from the sky.

Just another bleary day for an habitual drunk, who, at just 27 years old, had been in police protective custody — aka the drunk tank — 31 times. So there was nothing unusual when just after 9 o’clock that night a Northern Territory Police paddy-wagon pulled up and took Kwementyaye and others in his party into protective custody for his 32nd time.

Then the whole day went to shit.

Shit for Kwementyaye, his friends and family. Shit for the 10 NT police officers that dealt with him before he was found dead in a cell in the Alice Springs Police Station watch-house just before 2 o’clock on the morning of Thursday, January 5.

Somehow one of Kwementyaye’s cousins had smuggled a 750ml bottle of  rum — “hot stuff” — into the back of the paddy-wagon, which they promptly consumed in the 20-minute ride to the watch-house. According to evidence given at Kwementyaye’s inquest in Alice Springs last month, he skolled better than half of that bottle and by the time they arrived at the watch-house he was, as we say here, “full-drunk”. This half bottle of hot stuff may have added up to 0.23% of Kwementyaye’s 0.375% blood alcohol content — a level that would have most of us unconscious or close to death.

By the time they got to the watch-house, Kwementyaye was so shickered that he couldn’t walk un-aided from the paddy-wagon and was dragged face-down into the watch-house, where he lay unresponsive for a few minutes, prompting one officer to push a pen into his fingernail to test his responses. This may have sparked Kwementyaye into action because, as Constable Gareth Evans told Coroner Greg Cavanagh, he then became unco-operative and argumentative.

Constable Evans slung Kwementyaye across the watch-house reception area, his head and arm hitting the  reception desk before he fell, bleeding, to the watch-house floor. After processing, Kwementyaye was carried groaning and gasping to a cell, where he was placed in an awkward position, his body askew on a cell mattress, his neck and head twisted against a concrete block.

Police cleaned Kwementyaye’s blood from the watch-house floor. No one saw fit to have Kwementyaye checked by a nurse or taken to hospital five minutes up the road, preferring instead to follow OiC Sergeant William McDonnell’s instructions to let him “sleep it off”.

Whether Kwementyaye was asleep or unconscious is unclear but his condition was of such concern to his fellow prisoners that they made repeated attempts to alert watch-house police to Kwementyaye’s condition, using alarm buttons connected to the watch-house desk phone.

There is no doubt that all of the police officers who had dealings with Kwementyaye that night are now very sorry for their failings. Each has given their heartfelt apologies to Kwementyaye’s family. Sergeant McDonnell told the inquest that he would carry Kwementyaye’s death for the rest of his career. He told the inquest that he and other police had become “complacent” about drunks turning up to the watch-house with head wounds.

At 11pm, the graveyard shift came on duty.

Probationary Constable David O’Keefe told the inquest that despite instructions from acting-Sergeant Andrew Barram that he make regular observations of Kwementyaye, he didn’t make a single check from the time he came on duty at 11pm until Kwementyaye was found dead in his cell by Sergeant Barram when he returned to the watch-house almost three hours later. Instead, O’Keefe spent some of that time on the internet and playing with his iPod.

O’Keefe ignored the attempts of prisoners to alert him to Kwementyaye’s condition, saying that he was “distracted”, “lazy” and “tired”. He admitted to lying to ambulance officers that he had conducted regular cell checks on Kwementyaye when he had done none. O’Keefe also lied to Sergeant Andrew Barram.

O’Keefe’s duty partner that night was probationary Constable Janice Kershaw, who agreed with Cavanagh’s assertion that she had been “completely derelict”  and “complacent” that night. She had forgotten relevant parts of her custody training and made no observations of Kwementyaye’s condition.

Peter Fray

Fetch your first 12 weeks for $12

Here at Crikey, we saw a mighty surge in subscribers throughout 2020. Your support has been nothing short of amazing — we couldn’t have got through this year like no other without you, our readers.

If you haven’t joined us yet, fetch your first 12 weeks for $12 and start 2021 with the journalism you need to navigate whatever lies ahead.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW