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Howse, Chris --- "NT Ombudsman: Police complaints and Indigenous people in the Northern Territory" [2001] AltLawJl 53; (2001) 26(3) Alternative Law Journal 144

Police complaints and Indigenous people in the Northern Territory

CHRIS HOWSE[*] has serious concerns about the functioning of the Ombudsman in the Northern Territory.

The only way to ensure an independent investigation of a complaint about police conduct in the Northern Territory, short of commencing civil proceedings, is to make a complaint to the Ombudsman. An examination of the statistics kept by the Ombudsman over the last 10 years shows:

• a large proportion of policing in the Northern Territory involves Aboriginal/police interaction;

• Aboriginal people make a small proportion of complaints about police, see the graph below.

Source: This graph was compiled from figures published in the Annual Reports of the Office of the Northern Territory Ombudsman from 1991 to 2000.

The disparity between the level of Aboriginal/police interaction and complaints to the Ombudsman is explicable by either good Aboriginal/police relations or by poor relations between the Ombudsman and Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory.

Extracts (set out below) from select annual reports of the Ombudsman since 1992 reveal:

• the Ombudsman has accepted that the low level of complaints from Aboriginal people is a result of cultural barriers facing an Aboriginal person wishing to make a complaint;

• the Ombudsman has, from time to time, undertaken to implement substantial reforms with the aim of reducing those cultural barriers and improving the prospects of Aboriginal people making complaints;

• the Ombudsman has failed to implement substantial reforms that have been promised and there has been no discernible upward trend in Aboriginal complaints.

1992/1993 (13% of approaches to Ombudsman from Indigenous people)

A matter of some concern is the low number of approaches to me from Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders. While it is unlikely that they do not have problems requiring assistance, it may be that in the case of those problems which they are sufficiently concerned to pursue, they elect to adopt other alternatives, such as approaching their local member, a relevant minister, a land council or legal service. Provided those avenues are providing assistance, then I am not so concerned at the limited access to me. These other avenues do on occasion refer complaints to me where they consider I can assist.[1]

1994/1995 (7% of approaches to Ombudsman from Indigenous people)

The best efforts of many well-intentioned agencies to liaise closely and effectively with isolated Aboriginal Communities litter the landscape, abandoned on the reefs of cultural differences. Rather than attempt to inform whole Communities of my Office’s role and function, I have in mind to identify ‘target people’ in such communities and ensure these people are fully conversant a and aware of this Office and it’s role. In this way, where a difficulty arises with which this Office can assist, these ‘agents’ can alert a community member to my Office’s existence and role. I currently envisage local teachers, ATSIC patrol officers, Probation and Parole Officers and Local Council clerks would fall within this target group.[2]

1995/1996 (15% of approaches to Ombudsman from Indigenous people)

During the year, a number of Aboriginal organisations were contacted by myself to discuss strategies for promoting an awareness of the service available through my office. The response, while positive, has not yielded significant progress to date. I shall endeavour to pursue this initiative. A more coordinated approach will be possible with the implementation of the proposed restructure of my office. Given that only 4% of general complaints received by my office were from Aboriginal people, there is clearly a need to give this area priority in respect to raising awareness of my Office’s role.[3]

1996/1997 (18% of approaches to Ombudsman from Indigenous people)

Emphasis is placed on program delivery to identified disadvantaged groups … The development of cost effective measures to target remote communities continues to remain a high priority … it is my intention for the coming year, to produce and distribute, on a trial basis, translated versions of an appropriately designed Ombudsman information leaflet.[4]

1997/98 (17% of approaches to Ombudsman from Indigenous people)

The development of cost effective measures to target remote communities continues to remain a high priority.[5]

1998/99 and 1999/00 (20% and 22% of approaches to Ombudsman from Indigenous people)

The text in each annual report is identical save as indicated by underlining (to show additions in 1999/00) and strike-out (to show deletions to 1998/99).

As I have previously reported, the low number of complaints from Aboriginal people is of concern given their disproportionate representation in the justice system. It is apparent that the role and functions of this office are not well understood by Aboriginal people and access to our service is inequitable. Addressing the problem requires a long term comprehensive strategy and cannot be achieved by this office in isolation from the broader Aboriginal access to justice issue. Some steps have been taken to improve liaison with Aboriginal legal aid bodies and remote access visits have been undertaken. Improving Aboriginal understanding of my role is of pressing concern., Development of a strategy to begin that task will be a priority in the coming period.and in my view, will only improve when I have sufficient resources to implement a comprehensive support program with Aboriginal personnel.

George S. Patton is reputed to have said ‘Our basic plan of operation is to advance and to keep on advancing regardless of whether we have to go over, under, or through the enemy’. To our mind, one of the better strategic plans! And the enemy? We think it is bureaucratic stagnation of the Ombudsman. The Ombudsman’s cynicism about his own ability to deal with the problem has reached the point where he is content to ‘cut and paste’ from one annual report to the next. It is worth mentioning in this context that the Ombudsman employed South Australian Consultants to report on how to employ a trainee Aboriginal Complaints Officer. Stage 1 was expressed in the Annual Report of the NT Ombudsman 1998/99 at p.96 to be the spending of $22,000 on engaging consultants to:

undertake an examination of the office environment — including staff from the Ombudsman’s office — in order to gain an understanding of the perceptions of staff and the Office’s readiness and ability to successfully facilitate the employment of an Aboriginal trainee.

Stage 2 was to actually employ an Aboriginal Trainee. This has not happened. The costly consultant’s report is now almost three years old.

One might reasonably ask that if the Office of the NT Ombudsman really wanted to employ an Aboriginal person in a position identified as such, what is wrong with putting an advertisement in the paper and choosing someone who can handle the job? Why has this simple strategy not been ‘implemented’ in 22 years?

The Aboriginal Justice Advocacy Committee advises (free of charge) the following strategy:

• removal of the location of the NT Ombudsman’s office from the 12th floor of Northern Territory House to a shop front location in the inner city of Darwin;

• employment of a staff of Aboriginal people at the front reception desk.

When these things are done, we predict that the problem of attracting Aboriginal people to use the office will be all but solved. To solve it fully, the only other thing would be the replacement of the Ombudsman himself with a commission, part Aboriginal, to hear grievances.

The Aboriginal Justice Advocacy Committee of the Northern Territory has reached such a level of desperation that we have suggested that Aboriginal people with significant complaints initiate civil proceedings in the courts rather than deal with the Ombudsman.

[*] Chris Howse is Executive Officer, Aboriginal Justice Advisory Committee, Northern Territory.

© 2001 Chris Howse


[1] Annual Report Office of NT Ombudsman 1992/93, p.147.

[2] Annual Report Office of NT Ombudsman 1994/95, p.114.

[3] Annual Report Office of NT Ombudsman 1995/96, p.161 pp.138–9.

[4] Annual Report Office of NT Ombudsman 1996/97, p.137–139.

[5] Annual Report Office of NT Ombudsman 1997/98, p. 98.

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