Kumanjayi Walker inquest: NT police sergeant has ‘no excuse’ for using racist term in text to Zachary Rolfe

<span>Zachary Rolfe leaving the inquest into the death of Kumanjayi Walker in 2022. Sgt Lee Bauwens told an inquest that he did not know why he used a slur in a text to Rolfe months before the shooting.</span><span>Photograph: Aaron Bunch/AAP</span>
Zachary Rolfe leaving the inquest into the death of Kumanjayi Walker in 2022. Sgt Lee Bauwens told an inquest that he did not know why he used a slur in a text to Rolfe months before the shooting.Photograph: Aaron Bunch/AAP

A Northern Territory police sergeant who was in charge of the tactical unit involved in the fatal shooting of Kumanjayi Walker says he does not know why he used the term “bush coon” in a text message to his former colleague Zachary Rolfe, an inquest has heard.

On Thursday, Sgt Lee Bauwens told the inquest into Walker’s death that there was no excuse for using the slur in the message to Rolfe in July 2019, four months before Walker was killed at the remote community of Yuendumu.

Rolfe shot Walker dead during a bungled arrest in November 2019. He was later charged with murder but acquitted after a supreme court trial.

An inquest into the 19-year-old Warlpiri man’s death continued on Thursday, at which Rolfe is expected to give evidence from Monday.

On 9 July 2019, Rolfe was communicating with Bauwens via text message about an arrest of an Aboriginal man in a remote community which had involved Rolfe chasing the alleged offender, counsel assisting, Patrick Coleridge, told the inquest.

Bauwens responded: “These bush coons aren’t used to people going after them.”

When asked about the text message on Thursday, Bauwens said he could not recall sending it, or explain why he sent it. But he accepted he had sent the text, and that there was no excuse for doing so.

“I have no absolute memory or recollection of that comment, whatsoever, it’s not something I say, I don’t like the term, it’s not who I am, but it’s there, and I have to accept it,” he told the inquest.

“It’s completely foreign to me, and yeah … it’s not something I would say to anybody.”

Bauwens, who Coleridge said was regarded by junior colleagues as a positive mentor, agreed that he should have led by example and that using racist terms could normalise their use within the force.

Bauwens was the officer in charge of the Immediate Response Team (IRT), which was deployed to Yuendumu on the day Walker was shot and killed.

He had no involvement in the decision to deploy the IRT, as he was on medical leave at the time, the inquest heard.

Related: Kumanjayi Walker inquest: former NT police officer Zachary Rolfe will refuse to answer some questions

Bauwens also said that he had little or no knowledge of six factors mentioned to him by Coleridge that may have resulted in Rolfe being stood down from the IRT before the shooting.

These factors included that a judge had found Rolfe lied about his actions during the arrest of Aboriginal man Malcolm Ryder in Alice Springs in a bid to conceal the fact he had assaulted him; that the NT crime command was investigating Rolfe for his conduct in that case; and that Rolfe had been diagnosed as depressed and prescribed the antidepressant Escitalopram.

Bauwens agreed, had he known all the factors mentioned to him by Coleridge, that a “ball would have been put in motion” for a superior officer to consider if Rolfe should be stood down from the IRT.

“If someone presented a sheet with all that, you go oh well, take it up to the commander,” he told the inquest.

But Bauwens said he had little knowledge about those factors, apart from some detail about the Ryder case. Coleridge also directed his attention to a text message Rolfe sent Bauwens in February 2019 in which he said: “Hey brother sorry I’ve been slack lately, i’m burnt out as fuck”.

Bauwens said he judged Rolfe on his conduct during deployments, however, rather than on any other information he had.

“I worked with him closely on many many occasions, he demonstrated integrity and professionalism in front of me,” he told the inquest.

Bauwens was asked about another text message during his evidence, in which Rolfe told an undisclosed recipient he was enjoying his work in the IRT as “it’s a sweet gig, just get to do cowboy stuff with no rules”.

Bauwens, who said he had wanted the IRT – which was disbanded after Walker’s death – to be known as more than a unit responsible for “kicking down doors”, agreed that he was “not a fan of the terminology” used by Rolfe.

He said, however, that he could understand that coming from a military background, as he and Rolfe had, meant that policing was seen as a “refreshing” environment.

He said Rolfe was probably “talking a bit of crap” in the text.

Later on Thursday, Bauwens said that he and Rolfe were close colleagues, but did not socialise outside of work.

He disagreed with a suggestion by Andrew Boe, a lawyer for the Walker, Lane and Robertson families, that Rolfe had acted outside his training during the shooting of Walker, but said he had not watched the body-worn camera footage of the incident for some time.

Bauwens also said that he did not think Rolfe would have been obligated to tell him about the findings made by a judge in the Ryder case, if Rolfe had indeed known about the findings.

The inquest continues.