Kumanjayi Walker inquest: NT police commissioner knew about racist awards last year, court told

<span>NT police commissioner Michael Murphy says he failed to make the connection between information he received in August and the evidence of Zachary Rolfe about the award certificates.</span><span>Photograph: Neve Brissenden/AAP</span>
NT police commissioner Michael Murphy says he failed to make the connection between information he received in August and the evidence of Zachary Rolfe about the award certificates.Photograph: Neve Brissenden/AAP

The Northern Territory’s top police officer has agreed he was “gaslighting” Aboriginal people when he said he had not seen racism in the force, and admitted he knew about racist award certificates months before their existence was made public.

The police commissioner, Michael Murphy, told the inquest into the death of Kumanjayi Walker on Wednesday that he regretted not investigating the “coon of the year” certificates awarded within the force’s Territory Response Group or reporting them to the NT police professional standards command when he learned about them in August 2023.

Murphy also agreed he misled the public in February this year, when he told journalists he had not been aware of the certificates, which had been mentioned by former constable Zachary Rolfe during the inquest the previous day.

Rolfe shot Walker dead during a bungled arrest in the remote Northern Territory community of Yuendumu in November 2019. He was later charged with murder but was acquitted after a supreme court trial.

An inquest into the 19-year-old Warlpiri man’s death continued this week, and Murphy was the final witness.

Related: Kumanjayi Walker inquest: Zachary Rolfe says he’s ‘bored’ with coronial process and is ‘ready to move on’

Murphy said he could not eliminate the possibility that racism played a part in Walker’s death.

But much of his evidence focused on what he knew about broader racism within the force, including revelations sparked by Rolfe about a history of racist awards being handed out by the elite TRG spanning almost a decade.

It was revealed that Murphy met Carey Joy, a former NT police officer who the court has previously heard is friends with Rolfe, in August 2023.

Murphy said Joy provided him with details about the awards, but that he did not recall this meeting once Rolfe gave evidence about the same awards in February this year.

The following day, Murphy said in a press conference that he was not aware of the awards.

Under questioning from counsel assisting Peggy Dwyer SC, he denied deliberately misleading the public, saying that he had simply failed to make the connection between the August meeting and Rolfe’s evidence at the time.

Murphy also said he regretted not reporting Joy’s information regarding the awards.

“I should have delegated that and I should have actioned it and I should have reported it to the professional standards command and I did not,” he told the inquest.

Murphy agreed with Dwyer that he was “effectively gaslighting” the Aboriginal community, who had made repeated complaints about racism within the force, when he said during the same February press conference he had not seen similar conduct to that outlined by Rolfe.

At the time, he knew about the awards and other racism within the force, including an incident involving officers within the water police using a group chat to disparage an Indigenous colleague, the court heard.

Murphy said the force was committed to changing, and would “peel the scab back” on racism within the organisation.

Under questioning from Gerard Mullins KC for the Brown family, who are related to Walker, Murphy said he accepted his conduct and that of senior officers within the TRG represented a breach of the force’s code of conduct, given they had not reported instances of racism.

He also said he accepted that racist certificates may have remained undiscovered were it not for the evidence of Rolfe, a fact that Mullins said was distressing to the Brown family.

After Murphy’s evidence, a video taken in July 2022 was played to the court featuring relatives of Walker speaking about his death.

“When he went away from us, we are still sad,” said his grandmother, Alice Napurrula Walker-Nelson.

“Yuendumu was upside down. We wouldn’t think about anything.

“Just crying, crying. We didn’t know what to do.”

Lottie Robinson, the grandmother of Walker’s partner, Rickisha Robinson, said: “We need the government to understand, you know these people, they are joining the police force, they can’t just come and, you know, be tough in our communities.

“We don’t want another Rolfe coming in our – in our community, do these kind of things.”

Louanna Williams, Walker’s cousin, said it was important people came together to stop a similar death happening again.

“What I think about the police is not that they are here to serve and to protect the people, and the community itself. But what they’ve done to my nephew was wrong.

“They’ve only picked out really bad things about Kumanjayi in the court.

“They have only known him through what was written in their system. But they never knew him in person.”

The NT coroner, Elisabeth Armitage, closed the inquest after the video was played, saying her findings would be released at a later date after she considered the “complex” and “deeply disturbing” evidence before her.

“In this inquest we have attempted to examine and discover the circumstances of [Walker’s] passing … those circumstances are not limited to what happened in that room on that day,” she said.

“I do not use the word tragedy lightly. These events have been a tragedy for Kumanjayi Walker’s family … for the entire Northern Territory and the nation.”