• Andrew Matheson

An inquest into the drowning deaths of two Aboriginal boys

Originally published on SBS, written by Aaron Fernandes

An inquest into the drowning deaths of two Aboriginal boys found the police that pursued them acted appropriately. Their families are now considering legal action.

WARNING: This story contains images of Aboriginal people who have passed.

The Noongar mother of a teenager who tragically drowned in Perth’s Swan River after being chased by police has slammed a coronial report into his death.

Christopher Drage, 16, and Trisjack Simpson, 17, were among a group of five boys pursued by police officers, after they were seen jumping neighbourhood fences in the suburb of Maylands in September 2018.

Two patrol officers chased the boys on foot towards the Swan River, where three of the juveniles attempted to swim across a stretch of treacherous water. Mr Drage and Mr Simpson were unable to withstand the cold temperatures and strong currents.

The WA Coroner released a report into their deaths this week, following a week-long coronial inquest held in May.

The mother of Mr Drage, Winnie Hayward, spoke to NITV News about the disappointment she felt reading the report, which did not hold police responsible in any way.

“I think that the chase should have been called off. All police chases, if there’s a risk ahead, it stops. Whereas these kids pretty much got chased to their deaths”, she said.

“I’m disappointed. I still believe that it could have been prevented”.

Coroner Phillip Urquhart found the deaths of Mr Drage and Mr Simpson occurred when they attempted to swim across a stretch of the Swan River to avoid the officers.

The temperature of the river on the day was cold with strong currents, but the Coroner said the boys “would not have known the treacherous conditions of the river when they decided to swim across it”.

The Coroner ruled that the two police officers who chased the group had acted appropriately at all times.

Ms Hayward sat through an inquest in May this year and said the testimony of officers should have been more thoroughly scrutinised.

“You could tell the police were lying. They continued to say they didn’t know the Swan River was there. Who in Perth doesn’t know where the Swan River is?”

“It should have been called off. Because of the risk, and that day was a terrible day. The police not knowing their jurisdiction and the landmarks in the area. It should have been called off. The deaths could have been prevented and should have been prevented.”

“Racially profiled”

The two patrol officers suspected the boys had broken into nearby houses and chased them on foot. A witness described the boys as appearing “frightened” and “distressed”.

Video captured by an onlooker in a nearby apartment block overlooking the river showed the two police officers stopped on the bank. They told the court they had been focused on attending to one of the teenagers who had decided not to swim.

They also said in the conditions, they didn’t feel they could safely swim, or apprehend the teenagers in the river.

Two other officers from the WA Police Tactical Response Group that responded to the scene shortly after, did enter the river to try and save the boys. They were subsequently awarded for acts of bravery.

“And three recommendations, is that all those young lives are worth? The recommendations are not strong enough.”

NITV News was unable to reach the family of Mr Simpson for comment.

The Coroner made three recommendations, including for police officers to receive educational training in important landmarks and risk factors within the areas they operate in, for junior officers to be partnered with senior officers while on patrol, and the need and for

cultural awareness training to better deal with Aboriginal communities.

National Suicide Prevention and Trauma Recovery Project Director Megan Krakouer said the boys were racially profiled and described the inquest findings as inadequate.

“These young ones were racially profiled and that is all too common,” she said.

“Cultural awareness training has been going on for twenty or thirty years. The relationships between Aboriginal people and police is disgusting…and it's not going to improve when there’s no accountability.

“And three recommendations, is that all those young lives are worth? The recommendations are not strong enough.”

The deaths of the boys shocked Perth, in particular its Aboriginal communities, coming just weeks after a landmark apology from WA Police Commissioner Chris Dawson for the historically poor relationship between WA Police and Aboriginal people.

Ms Krakouer said that relationship would not improve without accountability for deaths in custody.

“There needs to be positive investments in grassroots initiatives lead by Aboriginal people; that will make a difference in people’s lives”.

Court action looms

After a three-year wait for answers that she says provided few, Winnie Hayward is now prepared to fight for her son’s legacy in the courts.

Ms Hayward and Mr Simpson’s mother Shelly Ninyette are being supported by Sydney-based Levitt Robinson Solicitors to file personal injury claims for several family members against the state of Western Australia.

Solicitors at the firm said writs had been served in the District Court of Western Australia, which will aim to prove the family members experienced nervous shock as a result of the events that lead to the boys’ deaths.

“We need to establish that the family members suffered nervous shock, that the nervous shock was causally related to those events, and the state of Western Australia has a case to answer for what happened,” solicitor Dana Levitt said.

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“This chase went on for quite some time and police never knew whether the boys had even committed a crime.

“(The inquest revealed) there are no policies or guidelines in regards to foot pursuits, or when a pursuit should be cancelled in consideration of risks to the wellbeing of both people being pursued and police.”

Solicitor Marie Walter said the lawyers were currently reviewing the evidence of the case, including health reports to establish the mental and physical trauma experienced by each of the family members.

“One of the significant things is with Shelly, she witnessed one of the bodies being pulled from the river and was unsure whether it was her son or not. That was obviously very confronting,” Ms Walter said.

Ms Levitt hoped any legal action would bring meaningful change to the intergenerational incarceration and trauma experienced by many Aboriginal families in Western Australia.

“What’s special about this case is that these ladies want to pursue another action off the back of what they see to be an unjust outcome in the inquest,” she said.

“Drage had been to Banksia Hill Juvenile Detention Centre 11 times. The fear of going to Banksia and the fear of police compelled those boys to jump in the river on a day when conditions were so bad.

"It speaks to the cultural problem that exists in WA and it needs to be overcome, or we will continue to lose one child after another.”

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