Last November, when Northern Territory police constable Zachary Rolfe was charged with murder over the death of Indigenous man Kumanjayi Walker, it felt like a step in the right direction for those fighting for justice for the 19 year old.
“I am overwhelmed for the news today,” Yuendumu elder Ned Hargraves told the ABC.
But for one group, it was a sign that things were heading the wrong way.
The Police Federation of Australia (PFA), a national peak union body that represents 63,000 police officers around the country, immediately rallied in support of Rolfe and slammed the charge brought against him. PFA chief executive Scott Weber said he was “absolutely appalled and disgusted”.
“It was absolutely shocking for police officers around the country to see someone out there doing their job, protecting the community, get charged with murder,” he was reported as saying.
In the wake of the resurgent Black Lives Matter movement that has brought with it a renewed focus on Aboriginal deaths in custody, the way in which powerful and politically connected police unions rush to protect their officers — even in the most extreme circumstances — is coming under scrutiny.
While it’s a union’s job to stand by its members, legal experts say the strategy validates the officer’s actions and can end up undermining the work of the courts, as well as efforts to hold police accountable.
“There is a direct impact on the trial and on justice,” Thalia Anthony, a professor of law at the University of Technology Sydney, told Inq.
“If there wasn’t that organised support for the officer, there would be a greater capacity for people to understand that the wrongdoing is about individual responsibility.”
Not an isolated case
The Rolfe case is far from an isolated example of the police unions standing by a member accused of the murder of an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander.
In February, the WA police union stood by the officer charged with the murder of Yamatji woman Joyce Clarke, who was shot dead in Geraldton in September after her family called 000 asking for a welfare check. “We stand by the police officer 100% and will do throughout this ordeal,” union president Harry Arnott said.
In the case of Chris Hurley, the first Australian police officer to be charged over an Aboriginal death in custody, support from the Queensland Police Union (QPU) was unwavering.
Hurley was charged with manslaughter and assault over the death of Mulrunji Doomadgee on Palm Island in November 2004, sparking police across Queensland to brandish blue wristbands. He was acquitted in 2007.
But even before the trial began, the union lashed out at the coroner’s findings that Mulrunji’s death had been caused by Hurley. “She’s [the coroner] used unreliable evidence from a drunk to support these claims,” the then QPU president Gary Wilkinson reportedly said.
The QPU continued to stand by Hurley even after he was convicted of grabbing another man by the throat in 2016, saying he would never get a “fair go”. In 2018, in response to the Queensland government’s $30 million class action settlement with Palm Island residents over the protests that followed Mulrunji’s death, QPU president Ian Leavers rejected the suggestion that police in these communities act in a racist manner. “I believe it is the police themselves who deserve the apology,” he said.
A powerful message
In the US, the role of police unions has also come under scrutiny following the death of George Floyd. The Minneapolis Police Department is withdrawing from police union contract negotiations as part of efforts to dismantle the department and address police brutality.
Here, the PFA’s Scott Weber defended the role of police unions, saying they had a duty to support their members in welfare, industrial relations and legal matters.
“With the matters that are currently underway in the Northern Territory and Western Australia, the unions and associations are giving their members full support,” he told Crikey.
But former Australian Federal Police commissioner Mick Palmer said that unions should ensure they know all the facts before supporting members.
“Police Associations, like all unions, are there to support their members [but] sometimes they might do that a bit too strenuously,” he said.
Alison Whittaker, a Gomeroi law scholar and research fellow at Jumbunna Institute, UTS, said the influence of police unions extended beyond public comments.
“In Coroners Courts, too, police unions and bodies frequently turn up to support one another, and turn up with support staff, even if they are witnesses in the same inquest,” she said.
“I have been to inquests where half the court seats are taken up this way, and the family and the public has occupied only two rows. I think it makes it really difficult to say with a straight face, especially of inquests where state investigators within both police organisations and corrections are the ones who prepare the evidence handed up to the coroner, that these are impartial processes.”
Professor Anthony said the unions’ support for officers, even once they’ve been charged with a serious offence, undermines the “bad apples” argument often rolled out in defence of police.
“When you have that kind of organised defence of deaths in custody it sends a really powerful message to the community that we should value the police officers’ standpoint [over others], and that they’re just doing their job,” she said.
“It’s quite a strategic move to vindicate the officers.”