“Changing a Whole System”: Racialised Policing in Melbourne

By Michael Green

By Michael Green

This piece was originally published on the Wheeler Centre website.

Last week, the State Coroner began an inquest into the death of a young man whose body was found in the Maribyrnong River. The hearing didn’t make it halfway.

On Friday the coroner, Ian Gray, suspended it, directed police to reinvestigate on his behalf, and requested that a more senior detective lead that search.

It is already over a year-and-a-half since Michael Atakelt disappeared. It will be many months yet before his family and friends learn more about what happened to him. After a week of public evidence, only one thing was apparent: the investigation by the Footscray police was woefully inadequate, at best.

Atakelt was 22 years old when he went missing on a Sunday evening, June 26, 2011. His body was spotted by a fisherman, and retrieved from the Maribyrnong River in Ascot Vale, eleven days later.

Overland Journal contacted me in early August 2011 and asked me to write about the case. The editor said that while the details were unclear, Atakelt seemed “to have died either in, or directly after being released from, police custody”.

Before long, I learned the situation is not so simple, the institutional violence not so overt. In the early hours of the Saturday morning – more than a day before he disappeared – Atakelt was held in the Melbourne Custody Centre for drunkenness and then released without incident.

But the facts are still far from clear. The coroner heard from crucial witnesses who had not previously been interviewed, and about whole avenues of enquiry that were not followed. The most glaring error was this: the police brief said Atakelt had likely entered the Maribyrnong River near Smithfield Bridge, approximately four kilometres downstream from where his body was recovered.

On the fourth day of the inquest, Sergeant George Dixon from the water police gave evidence that it was “very unlikely” Atakelt’s body had entered the river near Smithfield Bridge. He said that although the river is tidal in its lower reaches, the body could only have entered the river ‘a very short distance’ downstream from where it was found; it was more likely to have entered the river upstream, possibly as far as two kilometres.

“We understand it’s a systemic issue and that’s why we’re trying to address it in a systemic way. It’s not about one police officer, it’s about changing a whole system.”

Dixon has been in the water police since 1986 and he gave evidence for almost a whole day, about currents, tides, water flows and body recovery. Yet the investigator, Detective Senior Constable Tim McKerracher, had not spoken to him before the hearing began.

It was an extraordinary omission. But even so, you shouldn’t need three decades working on the water to form a hunch on which way a river flows. The Footscray police had not looked into the possibility that Atakelt entered the river upstream of where he was found.

The sergeant’s evidence cut the previous investigation adrift. The barristers clutched at improbable new theories until it became clear that there was no sure footing from which to continue at all.

Atakelt arrived in Australia in 2006, from Ethiopia. He was from the Tigray ethnic group, who live in the country’s north and in Eritrea.

A week after his body was found, over 250 people from several African-Australian communities attended a public meeting in North Melbourne. It was fronted by assistant commissioner Stephen Fontana, who was then responsible for the north-west metro area.

Among the speakers he heard that day were many young men who complained of constant harassment by police; and Atakelt’s mother, Askalu Tela, who said Footscray police hadn’t taken her missing person report for three days, despite repeated visits and phone calls.

Shortly afterwards, several young people started a group called Imara Advocacy, to help them speak out on issues such as racialised policing. When the inquest was suspended, one of the founders, Reem Yehdego said the community had been “demanding an independent and comprehensive investigation from the moment Michael Atakelt’s body was found”.

“It’s going to take all Australians and the media and huge community support to get these changes to happen.”

On Monday, I joined a swarm of journalists outside the Federal Court, where six young men had just settled a racial discrimination case with Victoria Police. It is five years since they first lodged the claim with the Australian Human Rights Commission, when they were all teenagers. They say the police regularly stopped them around Flemington and North Melbourne for no legitimate reason, and assaulted and racially taunted them.

Despite the settlement, Victoria Police denies the allegations and maintains that the teens were stopped for legitimate policing reasons. But it has agreed to a public review of its cross-cultural training and the way officers deal with “field contacts”.

It also agreed to release documents prepared for the case. One document – statistical evidence based on police data – shows that young African-Australian men in the area were policed out of all proportion: they were two-and-a-half times more likely to be stopped and searched, even though they committed relatively fewer crimes than young men of other ethnic backgrounds. Before the cameras, one of the men, Daniel Haile-Michael, said the courts alone wouldn’t be sufficient to put an end to racial profiling. “It’s going to take all Australians and the media and huge community support to get these changes to happen.”

An ABC journalist pressed him on why he’d settled the case, if police had really assaulted him. “I myself have been beaten up,” he said, “but it’s not a personal thing. We understand it’s a systemic issue and that’s why we’re trying to address it in a systemic way. It’s not about one police officer, it’s about changing a whole system.”

In the police force, the system starts at the top. Chief Commissioner Ken Lay had been subpoenaed to give evidence in the racial discrimination case, but when it settled, he was excused. “The Police Commissioner is off the hook,” said Justice Shane Marshall, to the amusement of the court.

Later, despite the statistics, Lay dismissed the idea that racial profiling is a problem within the force. He told the Age: “I do not believe our members would identify people and harass or continually check them simply because of their ethnicity.”

The case of Michael Atakelt goes just as high. In December 2011, Assistant Commissioner Fontana attended a second public meeting in North Melbourne. He assured the large gathering that the brief prepared for the coroner was “a very thorough investigation” and that he had “total confidence” in the officer who prepared it.

At the same meeting, Detective Sergeant Sol Solomon, from the homicide squad, said he had overseen the investigation and that it was “first class” and “all possible leads have been explored”. Later that month, Fontana repeated the same claim to me, over the phone: “We have had closer oversight of this particular case than we have of others,’ he said. ‘The homicide squad were involved all the way through, in terms of a very close supervision, as were the Ethical Standards [Department].”

At the inquest, as I watched the police investigation unravel, it was difficult to believe those words could have been true – or if so, to accept what it implied about the quality of our detectives.

Worst of all, it was difficult to believe the investigation would have been so poor if it were me who had disappeared instead.

Something has gone badly wrong, whether wilfully or negligently. And because of that, Atakelt’s family and friends may never find out how and why he died.

Michael Green is a freelance journalist who writes about environmental, social and community issues. He has been published in the Big Issue, Meanjin and Overland, who first asked him to cover the Michael Atakelt case, a year and a half ago. Michael also has a weekly spot in the Age. To visit his website, click here. He tweets @michaelbgreen