Kumanjayi Walker inquest: racist language ‘normalised’ in NT police, Zachary Rolfe tells court

A former police officer who shot and killed a Warlpiri man during an attempted arrest has told a court the use of racist language was “normalised” within the Northern Territory police, with its elite tactical unit bestowing an annual racist mock award to the member who “behaved most like an Aboriginal”.

Zachary Rolfe shot Kumanjayi Walker three times while trying to arrest him on 9 November 2019 in the remote community of Yuendumu, about 300km from Alice Springs. Walker, 19, stabbed Rolfe with a pair of scissors shortly before he was shot by the then-constable three times. Rolfe was found not guilty in March 2022 of charges of murder and manslaughter relating to Walker’s death.

Rolfe on Monday told an inquest into Walker’s death that racist language was widespread throughout the force, but he did not believe Aboriginal people were treated differently.

Rolfe said he had been told the tactical response group, an elite heavily armed squad which respond to high-risk incidents in the NT, held an annual award where “Coon of the Year” was awarded.

The officer who was given the award was made to wear a toga and carry a wooden club on the night afterwards, Rolfe said.

Rolfe said there were photos and videos of the awards presentation, and alleged to the court that multiple people had lied during the inquest about not knowing about such incidents. He said some people had been promoted within the force despite participating or failing to report the award.

“This is accepted and known about by multiple people who have given evidence here, multiple people have lied about it,” he said.

Rolfe said he had gradually been introduced to the use of racist language, including the N-word and terms to describe white people in relationships with Aboriginal people.

He said police also regularly used the term “animal bar” to describe a section of the Todd Tavern which was commonly frequented by Aboriginal people.

Rolfe said he also became used to using terms such as half-caste or quarter-caste, which he said were “potentially” racist.

But he said he did not see Aboriginal people treated differently, despite the use of this language.

“I haven’t seen a lot of racist behaviour per se … [but] racist language was normalised in the NT police force.”

He apologised for his own use of racist language in text messages, which have been revealed in earlier hearings.

“I can only speak for myself, and I know there are studies that do show that the normalisation of that language can dehumanise people … I can speak for me only, that wasn’t the case for me,” he said.

“The fact I said ‘coon’ in my messages … which would have caused hurt to a number of people, especially kids who should have been able to trust the police force … I’m sorry for that.”

Rolfe also said he had been told a high-ranking officer angrily berated staff in a Vietnamese restaurant about their service, and questioned whether they were treating him in a certain way because of the war.

Dr Ian Freckelton KC, on behalf of the NT police, said an assistant commissioner had been in court during Rolfe’s evidence, and planned to “immediately” investigate the allegations regarding the award and other racist behaviour.

Rolfe provided the names of several officers who he said may be able to assist with the investigations into racism, but only after declaring he didn’t want to be a “snitch”.

Rolfe’s barrister, Michael Abbott KC, said Rolfe had not wanted to be seen to be “dobbing on his mates”. Counsel assisting, Dr Peggy Dwyer SC, responded that it was more important to get to the bottom of questions of systemic racism in the force than be concerned with protecting friends.

The NT coroner, Elisabeth Armitage, said the inquest was concerned that racist attitudes may have been part of the “confluence of factors” that led to Walker’s death.

She urged Rolfe to provide the names “for the benefit of the public and also for the benefit of young police officers who are still joining the NT police and who still might be exposed to some of the attitudes that you’ve told us you’ve been exposed to that may have influenced the way you speak and the way you behave”.

Earlier in the hearing, Rolfe admitted he was “clumsy” when he failed to disclose a conviction for a military offence, being charged with a criminal offence and other matters in his application to join the force.

He said he forgot to disclose that he had previously been fined $300 for public nuisance and violent behaviour in Queensland when he applied to join the Northern Territory, Queensland and Victorian police forces in 2015 and 2016.

He also agreed he failed to disclose three other relevant matters in his NT police application, including that he had applied to join the police in other jurisdictions, and had been convicted of a military offence of theft.

Rolfe later declared the Queensland charge during an interview with NT police recruiters.

Dwyer said to Rolfe that making four errors in the NT police application was “a very clumsy way of filling out that form, I suggest to you?”

“Correct, I agree,” Rolfe agreed.

Rolfe also admitted he failed to declare that he had previously taken marijuana and MDMA, and failed to declare that he had been spoken to by Queensland police along with a suspect in relation to an assault.

But he denied that he had deliberately lied on his applications, saying “personal admin is not my strong suit”.

Rolfe said that the 2011 offence occurred when he was in the army, and a colleague had been set upon by a group of men during a night out in Townsville.

He said his colleague was unconscious when he arrived to fight off the opposing group, and that he had been losing the fight but turned the tables by the time police arrived, meaning he was arrested as it was suspected he had been the aggressor.

Rolfe said he was regarded within the army as having saved his colleague’s life, as the man was in a coma after the assault, and was later discharged from the army because of his injuries.

Queensland police identified integrity issues with Rolfe’s application relating to his failure to disclose the 2011 offence, and barred him from applying again to join the force for 10 years, the court heard.

Rolfe said the military charge of theft occurred in the context of him being dared to find tobacco while drunk with army colleagues during a rugby camp, and that he had found a pouch of tobacco in a colleague’s belongings. The offence was only detected the following day when he attempted to return the pouch, he said.

In a fractious opening to his evidence, Abbott on at least 10 occasions to the questioning of Dwyer in little more than an hour.

At one point, after Abbott complained about the tone Dwyer was using, she responded: “It is 2024. There are lady barristers, my learned friend is going to have to get used to that.”

People have gathered at the camp opposite the court room throughout the inquest, holding signs including “Justice for Walker”.

As Rolfe left court with his lawyers and supporters to get into a waiting taxi, a number of people shouted insults at him and attempted to strike him with a thong.

Lawyers for Rolfe have filed several legal challenges during the inquest, which delayed Rolfe, the final witness, from giving evidence.

The most recent of these occurred in October, when Rolfe, who had been scheduled to give evidence only days later, instead applied for the NT coroner, Elisabeth Armitage, to recuse herself from the inquest.

The inquest had been expected to be completed in three months but has now stretched on for almost 18 months since it started in September 2022.