Kumanjayi Walker inquest: racism a ‘broader’ issue in NT police, superintendent says

<span>Photograph: Aaron Bunch/AAP</span>
Photograph: Aaron Bunch/AAP

The superintendent formerly in charge of central desert remote communities has told an inquest into the police shooting death of 19-year-old Warlpiri man Kumanjayi Walker that racism is a “broader” issue within the Northern Territory police force.

Walker was shot three times by Constable Zachary Rolfe during an attempted arrest by the immediate response team in Yuendumu in November 2019.

Rolfe was found not guilty of murder and two alternative charges after a six-week trial in the NT supreme court in Darwin earlier this year.

On Monday assistant police commissioner Travis Wurst told the inquest racism was not “widespread” within the NT police force and it was found only in “isolated pockets”, but on Tuesday superintendent Jody Nobbs contradicted that assessment.

In his previous role, Nobbs oversaw a number of communities in the central desert region of the NT, including Yuendumu, but is now based in Nhulunbuy.

Nobbs was asked by counsel assisting the coroner, Peggy Dwyer, about text messages between Rolfe and other police officers shared with the inquest that used racist language and referred to “towelling” up local people.

“There’s no justification for anyone speaking to anyone in such vulgar language,” Nobbs said. “I won’t say that’s the prevailing attitude but it’s certainly the attitude of some.”

Dwyer asked: “You realise don’t you that there’s a number of police officers in Alice Springs to have revealed to have those attitudes and to be sharing them with each other?

“And one of them is a sergeant who’s supposed to be exercising discipline over younger officers, and they’re using racist terms. And then you’ve got a young officer boasting about ‘towelling up locals’ and going into the community and smashing it up.”

Nobbs replied: “I acknowledge that’s a broader issue. Broader than an isolated issue and it’s certainly attitudes that I wouldn’t want permeating across what I considered to be a very necessary functional unit,” he told the inquest.

He said he would want to get a greater understanding of why officers held racist views and that there would be disciplinary actions.

“I’d be certainly dealing not only with the sergeant but any of the officers that share those views,” Nobbs said.

“I have no tolerance for those sorts of attitudes and there’s disciplinary actions that will need to flow.”

He said officers often discussed the trauma of their work, which often involved violence and family violence, but it did not involve derogatory or racist language.

Nobbs agreed with Dwyer that the NT police force is a “microcosm” of the Australian community. Asked if he had heard that language in Alice Springs in the late 1990s, he said yes, but that he had not heard racist language within the police force personally.

“Alice Springs is a community I’m passionate about but I’ve seen it sort of deteriorate over the years as a relatively intolerant community. So yeah I’ve seen and heard that language across sections of our community.

“I’d like to think that my approach to conduct such as that is well known, and no one would say things such as to me, because my response would be quite clearly, quite decisive,” Nobbs told the inquest.

The inquest is expected to run until November.