Conflict, Politics and Crime: Aboriginal Communities and the Police

By Chris Cunneen | Go to book overview
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This book is an analysis of policing in Indigenous communities. (I have used the terms ‘Aboriginal’, ‘Indigenous’ and ‘Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander’ interchangeably throughout the text.) The book is not concerned with the institution of policing per se, nor does it rest on an essentialist view of the inherent ‘nature’ of Indigenous societies or cultures as monolithic or static. Rather it seeks to explore what is particular about the relationship between the institution of policing and Indigenous communities in Australia within a historical and contemporary framework.

Poor relations between police forces and Indigenous communities throughout Australia have been a regular source of local, national and international criticism of the failure of governments to improve standards of policing and eradicate racist behaviour in public institutions. 1 One of the most extensive royal commissions in the history of Australia—the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody—was established after numerous deaths in police and prison custody. After an exhaustive inquiry into 99 deaths (63 of which were in police custody) Commissioner Elliot Johnston concluded the following:

Let me say at once, it is my opinion that far too much police intervention in the lives of Aboriginal people throughout Australia has been arbitrary, discriminatory, racist and violent. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the antipathy which so many Aboriginal people have towards the police is based not just on historical conduct but upon the contemporary experience of contact with many police officers (Johnston 1991a, vol. 2, p. 195).

It is perhaps a similar point that Aboriginal writer and ex-prisoner, Kevin Gilbert, had made a decade and a half before the Royal Commission: ‘The real horror of Aboriginal Australia today is locked away in police files and child welfare reports. It is a story


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