The number of Aboriginal Australians who died in custody or as a result of a police operation in New South Wales in 2021 doubled the previous high set 25 years ago, prompting furious calls for reform to the state’s justice system.
Amid rising incarceration rates and a series of legislative changes making it harder for alleged offenders to be released on bail, data provided by the state’s coroner’s court revealed 16 Aboriginal people died while caught up with the justice system last year.
The previous record – eight – was set in 1997.
The revelation prompted an angry response from the Aboriginal Legal Service, as well as the families of the deceased.
The ALS’s principal legal officer, Nadine Miles, labelled it “unthinkable and shameful”, urging the government to introduce measures to give the coroner power to force police to follow up on recommendations stemming from inquests.
“No one should die alone, in pain and fear, forcibly separated from their loved ones,” Miles told the Guardian.
“The lives of these people’s families have been changed forever. There are children left behind to navigate the world without a parent. There are mums and dads, brothers and sisters, aunties and uncles, and grandparents desperately searching for answers and accountability.”
The spike came despite the overall number of people who died in custody or during a police operation falling to 43 – the lowest since 2018.
Most of the 13 people who died during a police operation were Indigenous.
This comes as the inquest into the death of Gomeroi man Gordon Copeland, who drowned in the Gwydir River in the early hours of 10 July 2021, came to a close last month.
In another case, Frank “Gud” Coleman, a 43-year-old Ngemba man, was found dead in his cell at Long Bay jail in July 2021.
His daughter, Lakota Coleman, and former partner, Skye Hipwell, remain shattered by his death.
While the number of deaths last year was “extraordinary”, Lakota also remembered that after her father’s death it was “barely a week” before she read about another death in custody.
“The feeling of, you’re grieving one, and then you see another one. You can’t explain your emotions. Sad, angry, it’s a mix of everything,” she said.
Governments across Australia have run numerous inquiries into deaths in custody, including the 1991 royal commission, from which many recommendations have never been implemented.
More recently, a NSW parliamentary inquiry into the incarceration of Indigenous people called for the state’s police watchdog’s role be expanded to include oversight of deaths in custody.
The Labor MP Adam Searle, who chaired that inquiry, said the recommendation should be “urgently” implemented.
“The number of First Nations people dying in custody has been too high for too long – and seems to be getting worse,” he said.
A spokesperson for the premier, Dominic Perrottet, said the government had “worked closely with Aboriginal communities to develop a strong relationship and remains committed to the National Agreement on Closing the Gap”.
The spokesperson said that collaboration included “addressing the disproportionate rates of Aboriginal incarceration”.
However, in its response to the inquiry, the government rejected the recommendation for independent oversight of deaths in custody.
Another recommendation, requiring NSW police or corrective services to provide updates about the implementation of coronial findings, was still under consideration.
Miles said the coroner should be given increased follow-up powers.
“The sheer number of lives lost should be a wake-up call to the NSW government and parliament,” she said.
“It’s not enough to keep issuing recommendations that never get implemented – this course of inaction is just an insult to grieving families.”
Lakota Coleman and Hipwell remain determined for Coleman to not become “just another black fella who died in jail”.
“It’s not just the loss of him as a dad or a brother, it’s a loss for our community as an Aboriginal person,” Lakota said.
Corrective Services NSW said it extended its “deepest sympathy to the families” of the people who had died, pointing to a review into Aboriginal deaths in custody currently being conducted on behalf of the agency.