'It's time for this to stop': Aboriginal woman dies in custody 20 years after her father

Family of an Aboriginal woman who died after falling unconscious in custody in Perth say arrest was a case of mistaken identity

The family of an Aboriginal woman who died in custody in Perth last week say she was mistakenly arrested by police who did not check her identity before restraining her in her mother’s house, hours before she lost consciousness.

Cherdeena Wynne, 26, died in hospital on Tuesday, five days after she became unresponsive while handcuffed by police on a side street off Albany Highway.

Less than two hours before falling unconscious, the mother-of-three was arrested and held on the ground in her mother’s house in Victoria Park, according to her family, in what they say was a case of racial profiling and mistaken identity.

Her mother, Shirley Wynne, and grandmother, Jennifer Clayton, are calling for eyewitnesses to come forward.

Her death comes 20 years after her father, Warren Cooper, died in custody after being found unresponsive in a police watchhouse in Albany. Cooper was also 26 years old.

“It’s time for this to stop,” Clayton told Guardian Australia. “I have lost my son and now I have lost a granddaughter.”

There are differences between the account given by Wynne’s family, which were put to police by Guardian Australia, and events as outlined in a written response by Western Australian police.

Shirley Wynne said eight police officers entered her home at 3.30am on 4 April, did not turn the lights on, and “manhandled my daughter to the ground where she urinated herself”, all while calling her a different name.

She said six officers were physically involved in the arrest and that they did not check her daughter’s identity until after she repeatedly told them they were using the wrong name.

In a statement, WA police alleged that Cherdeena Wynne had run from police about 5.48am that morning and was “seen to run and was located at a nearby address”. At that address, they said, “her identity was ascertained and she was then left in the care of a family member”.

Shirley Wynne said police were at her house for at least 20 minutes and left her daughter, who had a history of mental illness, very distressed. She ran from the house and met police again on Berwick Street.

Warren Cooper, Cherdeena Wynne’s father, died in custody in Albany in 1999. They were both 26 years old
Warren Cooper, Cherdeena Wynne’s father, died in custody in Albany in 1999. Both were 26 years old when they died. Photograph: Supplied by family

According to the police statement, that second interaction happened at 6.50am following reports a woman had self-harmed and collapsed in the street. Paramedics also arrived and Wynne was placed in an ambulance but ran from the vehicle when it stopped at traffic lights on Albany Highway.

Police were called again and found Wynne “behaving erratically” in Tate Street, where police said she was handcuffed “to prevent injury to herself and emergency services”.

She was uncuffed when she lost consciousness to allow police and paramedics to commence CPR. She was revived and taken in the ambulance to Royal Perth hospital, where she remained in an induced coma until she died.

Police are preparing a report for the coroner but are not investigating it as a death in custody or a death in police presence, despite police being present when she lost consciousness and needed to be resuscitated.

Doctors at Royal Perth hospital told her family her injuries included a two-inch gap between two of the vertebrae at the back of her neck. The coronial office has requested a second post-mortem examination to determine whether that injury occurred on the day of her arrest.

Clayton asked anyone who saw her granddaughter on 4 April to contact the First Nations Death in Custody Committee. Had police acted with more care when making the first mistaken arrest, she said, her granddaughter may not have died.

“We need to get justice for my granddaughter, for Shirley’s daughter,” she said.

Wynne had Noongar and Yamatji heritage. Noongar families in Perth were already grieving the death of Alf Deon Eades, who died in hospital last month after he was allegedly attacked in Hakea prison. Two men have been charged with his murder.

Carol Roe, whose granddaughter Ms Dhu died in custody in Port Hedland after being arrested for unpaid fines in 2014, is Clayton’s cousin.

She said the repeated trauma within tightknit families and lack of action from authorities – the WA government is still yet to introduce laws promised following Ms Dhu’s death – meant Aboriginal families were unable to move on.

“If kids die from natural causes you can go on, but the way our kids die we can’t go on,” Roe said. “We are lost in the system and they don’t care two stuffs.”

Monday was the 28th anniversary of the findings of the royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody, at least a third of which have still not been implemented.

More than 80 non-government organisations used the anniversary to call on the Victorian government to repeal public drunkenness laws, following the death in custody of Yorta Yorta woman Tanya Day in 2016. Day died in hospital after being injured in custody following her arrest for being drunk on a train.

Abolishing public drunkenness laws, ending the practice of jailing people for unpaid fines and conducting a mandatory inquest whenever a person dies in the presence of police officers are all recommendations of the royal commission.

  • This story was amended on 23 April 2019 to correct the spelling of vertebrae in the story.


Calla Wahlquist

The GuardianTramp

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