Queensland police employee suspended after Aboriginal woman dies in custody

Ben Smee
<span>Photograph: Danny Casey/AAP</span>
Photograph: Danny Casey/AAP

An Aboriginal woman who died in a Brisbane police cell two weeks ago was allegedly not monitored for more than six hours before her body was discovered – despite protocols requiring hourly physical checks.

Aunty Sherry Fisher-Tilberoo, 49, died of a suspected brain aneurism in the Brisbane police watch house in the early hours of 10 September.

Her death prompted a series of heated Black Lives Matter protests in the city. They were met with strenuous denials of any police racism or wrongdoing from the commissioner, Katarina Carroll, and other senior police.

On Monday, the assistant commissioner, Brian Codd, announced an assistant watch house supervisor had been suspended following an internal police investigation into Fisher-Tilberoo’s death.

The woman, who is not a sworn police officer, was stood down on full pay for alleged failures of duty “in relation to the performance of physical checks” and “related record keeping”.

“My understanding is the last known movement of Ms [Fisher-Tilberoo] was about the midnight mark and of course she was located deceased shortly after 6am,” Codd said.

Related: 'National emergency': urgent leadership needed after fifth Aboriginal death in custody since June

“We have protocols in the watch house that various checking is done in cells depending on the risk profile of the individual. I should point out that Ms [Fisher-Tilberoo] was assessed as a normal risk threshold.

“The normal protocols in that regard would involve usually hourly physical checks. That check would involve going to the external part of the cell, going to the cell door and looking for obvious signs of life.”

Asked whether the alleged failure to check on Fisher-Tilberoo had “a racist element”, Codd said he was aware of “sensitivities currently in the public domain around a range of issues with the Black Lives Matter movement”.

“I’m pleased this is not a regular event here in Queensland, this is a rare event, but nonetheless this is a serious issue that needs be examined factually. I’ll leave others to comment on … what the causation might be,” he said.

Codd said the police commissioner, Katarina Carroll, had immediately introduced new arrangements governing watch houses. This included appointing a senior superintendent to a new position of state custody officer.

“The Queensland police service would traditionally wait for coronial inquest findings but has taken immediate steps on this occasion due to the sensitivities surrounding it,” the assistant commissioner said. “We will carefully consider and implement any recommendations they make at the conclusion of their inquiries.”

Responding to a series of rallies in the wake of Fisher-Tilberoo’s death and anti-police sentiment, Carroll on Sunday insisted police were not racist.

“I am really upset about that,” Carroll told reporters. “We’ve done the right thing here all along. We’ve been extraordinarily open and transparent about this investigation – like we should be and always are. Sadly, she did pass away. Sadly, it was of natural causes. But we are in no way racist. That does concern me.”

Carroll did not appear at Monday’s press conference.

It is understood the female police employee has not worked since the night of Fisher-Tilberoo’s death. She has been suspended on full pay.

On Sunday, Indigenous legal groups said the matter required “urgent” national leadership.

Fisher-Tiberoo is the fifth Aboriginal person to die in custody since June. Her death brings to 441 the number of people who have died in custody since a royal commission handed down its final report in 1991.

“Our people are dying in custody every few weeks – this is a national emergency and we demand urgent national leadership,” the co-chair of National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services, Nerita Waight, said.

“There are multiple coronial [inquests] on foot and two police charged with murder for fatal shootings. This cycle of violence, neglect and avoidance of accountability of police and corrections must end, before more of our people die.”