Chief Minister Michael Gunner has defended the decision of Northern Territory Police to not tell Kumanjayi Walker’s family about the 19-year-old man’s death until nearly 10 hours after he was fatally shot.
“Police on the ground had to make decisions best they could in the circumstances about when they informed the family — I don’t want to essentially backseat drive this,” Mr Gunner said.
- WARNING: This article contains an image of Mr Walker used with the permission of his family.
Mr Gunner said officers had to juggle the “respectfulness of the situation” with community safety.
“We would like to go to that community, but will take advice on the right time — we want to be respectful of the family,” he said.
“This is such a difficult set of circumstances and I feel for everyone involved with this — I feel for the family, who are going through great uncertainty.”
The health clinic in Yuendumu, an Aboriginal community 266 kilometres north-west of Alice Springs, was unstaffed on Saturday night.
Mr Gunner said health staff had left the clinic after a “series of break-ins” in their quarters and they felt unsafe.
He said the same nurses who left Yuendumu were staying in Yuelamu, an hour’s drive away, and returned to treat Mr Walker after he was shot.
“My understanding [is] the phone call went in around 7:30pm, they hopped straight in an ambulance and attended within an hour,” he said.
Mr Gunner said it was not “unusual” for remote health clinics in the NT to have staffing issues and it was important for health workers to be safe when they were in communities.
He said nurses would be providing day services for people living in Yuendumu, but health staff would not be “physically living in the community for a little while”.
The Royal Flying Doctor Service said at 9:00pm on Saturday night it was notified Mr Walker had died, after police fired three shots as they attempted to arrest him around 7:15pm.
Acting Deputy Commissioner Michael White said the two officers involved had applied first aid at the scene, before taking Mr Walker to the Yuendumu police station.
As news of the shooting spread throughout the community, a crowd including Mr Walker’s family gathered outside the police station seeking updates on the man’s condition.
Their requests to allow two family members entry to the police station were denied by police.
Deputy Commissioner White agreed that police had chosen not to announce Mr Walker’s death on Saturday night partly out of fear of reprisal.
“Of course that was a consideration,” Deputy Commissioner White said.
“We were working with the community as best we could at the time.
“It’s a challenging environment that we’re in – it’s a remote community many hours away from support within the timeframe of it [Mr Walker’s death] occurring.
“Making sure that the community was safe and our members were safe … it took some time to notify them,” he said.
“But the whole time he was already dead inside the police station,” she said.
Police told a press conference late on Sunday afternoon that prior to the shooting, officers in Yuendumu had wanted Mr Walker to volunteer himself to police over breaches of a community corrections order.
It’s understood Mr Walker had instead requested that he be allowed to firstly attend the funeral of a senior local man, held on Saturday, and that permission was granted by police.
“Police had attempted to negotiate with him and his family to surrender to police, but he was allowed the opportunity to attend that funeral in respect of the community culture,” Deputy Commissioner White said.
‘We do not randomly go around and attack people’
Police have so far doubled-down on the decision to use lethal force against Mr Walker, and said the shots were fired only after their members were “set upon”.
“He actively targeted our officers and came towards them, and attacked one of them,” Deputy Commissioner White said.
“We do not randomly go around and attack people.”
Police confirmed the officer who was stabbed in the shoulder was treated for his injuries at Alice Springs Hospital and discharged a short time later.
Deputy Commissioner White said he did not know the specifics of the weapon allegedly used by Mr Walker, except that it was “edged”.
“A number of items have been seized but the crime scene is still active and is being examined as we speak,” he said.
Elders call for calm at heated community forum
At a community forum held on Sunday afternoon, an open mic session gave family and friends an outlet for their grief.
Some held “black lives matter” banners, whilst others sat in the audience and sobbed.
A women’s wailing circle held vigil during the heat of the day, while the men gathered separately to vent their anger and sorrow for the young man lost.
When it came time for Acting Commissioner Michael Murphy and Deputy Commissioner Travis Wurst to address the forum, the moderating elders called for calm.
Both of the Northern Territory’s most senior policemen had served lengthy tenures in Yuendumu earlier in their careers, and many elders rose to hug them before they took the microphone.
As some in the crowd jeered and swore, elders shouted back for the community to be quiet and maintain their manners.
“You have a right to be angry, I understand that,” Deputy Wurst said, as his words were conveyed to the crowd in Warlpiri via a translator.
“I give you an undertaking that we will give that young man who passed away a voice in this investigation, so that the truth is provided to family, to the community and to the public,” he said.
The body of Mr Walker is now in Alice Springs, and police said they are seeking permission to perform an autopsy — the results of which will be provided to the Northern Territory coroner.
Mr Gunner said the NT Government would be sending grief counsellors to the community today.