Apology a decade after Aboriginal woman died in custody

Ethan James |

The police commissioner and country health chief have apologised to family over the death of Ms Dhu.
The police commissioner and country health chief have apologised to family over the death of Ms Dhu.

Western Australia’s police chief has formally apologised to the family and community of a 22-year-old Aboriginal woman who died in custody a decade ago. 

Yamatji woman Ms Dhu, whose first name has not been used for cultural reasons, died two days after being locked up at South Hedland Police Station on August 4, 2014.

She had been arrested for unpaid fines of $3622.

A coroner in 2016 found Ms Dhu had been treated inhumanely by police and received deficient treatment from hospital staff.

WA Police Commissioner Col Blanch
WA Police Commissioner Col Blanch apologised after a mediation process that concluded in March. (Richard Wainwright/AAP PHOTOS)

Police Commissioner Col Blanch issued a joint statement on Friday with the head of WA’s regional health service, Jeff Moffet.

“On behalf of the Western Australia Police Force and WA Country Health Service, we apologise to the family and community of the late Ms Dhu,” they said.

“We are truly sorry for the circumstances of Ms Dhu’s death and recognise the significant impact her passing has had on her family and her community.”

The apology followed mediation that ended in March and remained confidential. 

Human rights lawyer and spokesman for Ms Dhu’s family Gerry Georgatos said the gesture of the apology had been accepted by the family.

“It means something in terms of validation because it hasn’t often happened,” he said. 

“The family doesn’t accept it has procured accountability … but they have accepted the police’s gesture.”

Mr Georgatos said the apology should have come much earlier but he was hopeful it signalled cultural change. 

Ms Dhu died from staphylococcal septicaemia and pneumonia after an infection in her fractured ribs, caused by her partner, spread to her lungs.

Supporters of Ms Dhu outside the coroner's court in Perth
Ms Dhu’s family has accepted an apology from WA’s police chief. (Richard Wainwright/AAP PHOTOS)

She died during her third visit in as many days to the Hedland Health Campus. 

In 2021, a doctor who failed to properly examine Ms Dhu was found guilty of professional misconduct.

The doctor who examined Ms Dhu at the hospital the day before her death missed her high heart rate, which had been recorded by the triage nurse.

He also didn’t take her temperature or order an X-ray, instead making reference in his notes to “withdrawal from drugs” and “behavioural issues”.

She was declared fit for custody.

The coroner determined Ms Dhu’s death could have been prevented if her illness had been diagnosed earlier and she had been given antibiotics.

WA in 2020 changed laws in relation to jailing people for unpaid fines to ensure imprisonment could only be used in strict circumstances. 

The move followed a campaign from Ms Dhu’s family and other advocates, with state attorney-general John Quigley describing her death as the catalyst for the reform.

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