South Australia reform push after another 'medical episode' death in custody

Indigenous man with chronic health problems who died a police station the fourth in a year

An Indigenous man who died in custody at an Adelaide police station this week is the fourth detained person to die after a “medical episode” in South Australia in the past year.

Kunmanara Gibson, 47, died at the Adelaide city watch house at 1.05am on Tuesday. He had been arrested on Monday night for allegedly breaching an order and suffered from chronic health issues caused by diabetes and alcohol abuse.

It is understood police were aware of those issues before he died and had placed him in an observation cell, which meant he was checked by watch house staff every 15 minutes.

The cause of his death has not yet been confirmed. In a statement, South Australian police said a postmortem examination would be conducted and a report prepared for the coroner.

It is the third death in police custody in South Australia this year to be attributed to a “medical episode”, after the death of a 50-year-old Aboriginal man in the Adelaide suburb of Parafields Gardens on 26 May, and the death of a 35-year-old man at Angaston in the Barossa Valley on 7 February.

The death of Kokatha and Wiradjuri man Wayne “Fella” Morrison, who died at Royal Adelaide hospital on 26 September, 2016, three days after he was allegedly involved in an altercation with guards while on remand at Adelaide’s Yatala prison, was also attributed to a “medical episode”.

Cheryl Axleby, the chief executive of SA’s Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement (ALRM), said the cases were a “concerning” trend and showed the need for a compulsory custody notification service in SA, which would create a mandatory requirement for police to contact ALRM as soon as an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person was taken into custody.

The service was a recommendation of the royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody and is designed to provide an automatic independent welfare check, as well as providing legal advice.

New South Wales is the only state to have a mandatory custody notification service but the federal government has offered three years’ funding to any state or territory prepared to legislate based on the NSW model.

SA and the Western Australian government, which is facing similar pressure to introduce the service following coronial recommendations on the 2014 death in custody of Indigenous woman Ms Dhu, have said they are “considering” the federal government’s offer.

“What we do know, and what SA police also know, is that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people do suffer particularly high levels of chronic health problems,” Axleby said. “What ALRM are saying is that if you are aware of that, then there’s a duty of care that is required.”

Axleby said ALRM was notified of Gibson’s arrest at 9pm Monday and of his death at 3am Tuesday. The Aboriginal visitors scheme, which also sprung from a royal commission recommendation, was not requested.

Automatically contacting the visitors scheme is not a legal or procedural requirement but it is “standard practice,” Axleby said.

Gibson was from the remote community of Yalata and had most recently lived in the APY lands, Axleby said. He spoke little English and was not provided with an interpreter.

“If the Aboriginal visitors scheme had been contacted they might have been able to get an interpreter, and he might have been able to articulate his health issues more clearly,” Axleby said.

The family of Mr Reid, the 50-year-old man who died shortly after being arrested at Parafield Gardens in May, allege that he told police while in handcuffs that he had a heart condition and was experiencing chest pain and made four requests to access his medication, which were denied.

A police statement on the incident said Reid, who is not named for cultural reasons, “appears to have suffered a medical episode and collapsed” while being arrested for an alleged domestic violence incident.

The police statement on the death of a 35-year-old man in the Barossa in February said the man was arrested on reports of driving erratically and property damage and “died shortly after at the scene despite medical assistance being provided by police and ambulance officers.”

Both deaths, and the deaths of Gibson and Morrison, are being separately investigated by the SA coroner and will be subject to a public inquest.


Calla Wahlquist

The GuardianTramp

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