‘Tragic on many levels’: Queensland ambulance service apologises after death of Indigenous man

·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Dave Hunt/AAP</span>
Photograph: Dave Hunt/AAP

The Queensland ambulance service has apologised for the treatment provided to an Indigenous man who died after being detained by police, acknowledging “our performance fell below our own high standards”.

The man, known as Noomba, died in Townsville in 2018. Police had been trying to detain him for a mental health assessment after his partner called them concerned he was suicidal.

Video footage and witness statements provided to the Queensland coroners court show Noomba, 39, suffered a suspected cardiac arrest only metres from his house. He was lying on the street surrounded by police and paramedics. He died a short time later.

An inquest into Noomba’s death was held in April and coroner Terry Ryan is expected to hand down his findings later this year.

Related: Townsville police used controversial neck hold on Indigenous man before he died in 2018, coroner told

The Queensland ambulance service’s medical director, Dr Stephen Rashford, in a letter sent to Ryan in February, recommended immediate changes requiring state police and paramedics to treat people who presented as Noomba did far more comprehensively.

Rashford said in such scenarios – where a person in custody goes from “100 miles per hour to zero in a very short period” – police should be required to call the Queensland ambulance service effectively asking for a cardiac arrest response. The closest ambulance would be dispatched under priority conditions in addition to a critical care paramedic unit if available.

Rashford said Noomba’s case shared a common theme to many he had reviewed for the coroner – a relatively rapid change in clinical condition from highly agitated to a depressed level of consciousness in the setting of restraint.

He said despite multiple coronial recommendations to address the problem more needed to be done.

The paramedics in Noomba’s case had attempted to act in the best interests of the patient and appeared empathetic and competent, but the treatment fell below the level expected, Rashford said, adding he would refer the case to the health ombudsman.

“Whilst I cannot say with certainty that the outcome of [Noomba’s] cardiac arrest was altered, the QAS care in this case did not optimise his chances of survival,” he wrote to the coroner.

“This is a tragic case on many levels and I am saddened for [Noomba] and his family. On behalf of the QAS commissioner, I wholeheartedly apologise for the level of care that was provided to [Noomba] on this occasion.

“Our performance fell below our own high standards and our commitment of ‘excellence in ambulance services’ to all Queenslanders.”

Noomba had a heart condition and had been sniffing petrol shortly before his death – both factors that are considered likely to have contributed to his cardiac arrest.

Police body-worn camera footage provided to the inquest showed an officer pursued Noomba on foot when he wouldn’t respond to requests to stop. Noomba then swung an arm at the police officer, who, along with a colleague, wrestled him to the ground.

One officer said in his initial interview that during the struggle he used a police technique known as a lateral vascular neck restraint (LVNR) to take control of Noomba. But the officer reportedly changed this evidence during the inquest to say he did not believe he had used the hold.

Queensland police did not include any material about the LVNR in its initial submissions to Ryan.

But after Guardian Australia reported in March that officers said they used the hold to restrain Noomba, Ryan requested Queensland police provide information on LVNR training, how its use is governed, and its use in other jurisdictions.

Related: ‘The DV industry’: Queensland police union official criticised for ‘offensive’ reference

An investigation of the incident – requested by counsel assisting the coroner and completed by former senior Victoria police officer Emmett Dunne – cleared the officers of serious wrongdoing.

But Ryan is expected to consider whether Queensland police should change its policy for how to respond to people considered at risk of self-harm, particularly if they are Indigenous.

A letter provided to the inquest by Gerry Georgatos, the coordinator of the National Suicide Prevention and Trauma Recovery Project, said about 10% of all suicides involving First Nations people in Australia in recent years had occurred in Townsville.

Georgatos said a short-stay facility for First Nations people who were suicidal should be established in the city.

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