Police accountability for deaths in custody: a comparative look


Deaths in police custody has been a recurring news item in the past few months, both nationally and internationally. In Queensland, a review was announced by police commissioner Ian Stewart last November following three incidents in which police shot and killed individuals in the space of one week. The review will look at how officers deal with violent confrontations.


Ferguson, Missouri

The United States has been shaken by a spate of police shootings of African American men. The most high-profile was the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown by white police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri on 9 August 2014. Brown was unarmed and being pursued by Wilson shortly after Brown had committed a robbery. There were conflicting eyewitness accounts as to whether Brown had his hands up at the time he was shot, or whether he was “charging” at Wilson. A grand jury decided not to indict Wilson for the killing of Brown on 24 November 2014. Large-scale protests erupted both after the killing of Brown and the grand jury decision. The grand jury proceedings were unique in that there was no charge suggested by the prosecutor, the defendant gave evidence, the proceedings lasted 25 days, there were 60 witnesses, and the evidence and testimony was released to the public after the jury decided not to indict Wilson. Typically, grand jury proceedings are secret, they last for a day, do not hear from the defendant and the prosecutor suggest charges and calls a handful of evidence.

New York City, New York

Another case which made headlines was the death of Eric Garner in New York City on 17 July 2014. Garner, an African American, became involved in a struggle with police after he was asked to stop selling cigarettes illegally on a street corner. He was grappled by officer Daniel Pantaleo and held on the ground. He lost consciousness and died as a result. The New York City medical examiner’s office said his death was caused by the compression of his chest and prone positioning during physical restraint by police. There were conflicting accounts as to whether Pantaleo used a chokehold, a banned manoeuvre, or simply restrained Garner by the neck. Some have suggested that pre-exisitng medical conditions contributed to Garner’s death. A grand jury decided not to indict officer Pantaleo for Garner’s death on 3 December 2014. Mass protests followed the announcement of the decision.

There has been wide-ranging criticism of these decisions not to hold officers accountable under criminal law for the deaths of these and other African American men. Race is a core element of dissatisfaction; as in many cases, a predominantly white police force is killing members of majority African American communities.

Sydney, NSW

In an anecdotal sense, Australia does seem to have a better track record at holding police officers to account for the deaths in custody. 21-year-old Brazilian man Roberto Laudisio Curti died after being tackled, sprayed with OC spray and tasered 14 times following a police foot pursuit. He was intercepted after stealing biscuits from a city convenience store after consuming a quantity of LSD. The Coroner’s ruling was inconclusive as to Curti’s cause of death, but noted that absent police intervention Curti would not have died. Four policemen were charged with assault in the aftermath of the incident; one was found guilty at the Local Court and was not sentenced by way of conviction.

Grand juries vs committal hearings

The difference between the American and the Australian approach is that in America, members of the public are empanelled into a grand jury to consider whether an individual should be charged. A mini-trial hears a selection of evidence led by the prosecutor, and the jury decides whether probable cause exists to indict the defendant. In Australia, in serious matters this task is usually undertaken by way of a committal hearing, where a mini-trial (on the papers and/or by way of oral evidence) takes place in a Local or Magistrates’ Court, with the judge deciding whether a prima facie case exists and the defendant should be committed for trial. Our system reserves jury involvement for the trial proper. Criticisms of the grand jury process in America is overrepresentation of white people in grand juries.

More recently: Bowral, NSW

While no allegations of improper conduct have been levelled at the police as of yet, the most recent case is that of Kevin Norris, who died overnight while in custody at Bowral police station. Norris is said to have claimed that he had been attacked, following which police attended on his location at a fast food restaurant in Mittagong. A confrontation ensued, in which two police officers suffered head injuries and were admitted to hospital. Capsicum spray and a taser were used to subdue Norris, who was conveyed to Bowral police station, dying a short time later. A critical incident investigation by NSW Police Professional Standards Command is underway.

Aboriginal deaths in custody

Australia is certainly not immune from the racial implications of deaths in custody. A royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody concluded in 1991, making several key recommendations, but as noted in a recent 7.30 report, the issue of Aboriginal overrepresentation in prison statistics has not gone away. In a three-month period in 2014, three indigenous persons died in custody in Western Australia, including a 22-year-old girl. The statistics are startling: in WA, one in every 13 adult Aboriginal males is in jail. More than 340 deaths in custody have occurred since the 1991 royal commission. Indigenous people constitute 2.5% of the Australian population, and 26% of its prison population. The situation is worst in WA.


Australia is not immune from the tragedy of police brutality and unfair targeting of ethnic minority groups. Our system does not involve members of the public at the pre-trial stage. It is an open question as to what effect these differing procedures have on holding police to account for deaths in custody.








Image credit: Solidarity

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