ANALYSIS: There were some important words Police Commissioner Jamie Chalker did not say in his press conference – which he walked away from without taking questions – after the verdict in the Constable Zach Rolfe murder trial yesterday that rendered his statement meaningless.
Some of those words were: Zach Rolfe; Kumanjayi Walker; police shooting; murder trial; died; Yuendumu; Aboriginal community; not guilty.
If you did not know what the presser was about going in, you would have finished the bizarre six minutes, 33 seconds, knowing even less.
And wondering who the man/robot impersonating a police commissioner was, as he rambled on about unrelated deaths – which even then he couldn’t call deaths, but rather ‘critical incidents’ – and why journalists were listening to him?
Or why it appeared he had undergone an empathy-adectamy.
But to be fair, he wasn’t the only leader who was missing those keywords in response to the not guilty verdict today.
Although Chief Minister Michael Gunner’s emailed statement did manage to include the words “dead” and “Yuendumu community”, Chalker missed it.
“Since November of 2019, this matter has lingered, it has impacted all corners of the Northern Territory and today a verdict was delivered,” Mr Chalker started.
“The NT Police force is a representative of this community. We are the ones charged to act without fear or favour, and a matter proceeded to the Supreme Court for a decision, and that decision has now been made.”
It continued as a disjointed stream-of-consciousness statement almost alarmingly slow, by a man wrestling with the basics of the English language – including grammar, syntax, word selection and meaning – and being pinned to the canvas by it immediately.
“There is never any winners in circumstances such as this, and all of us need to try and make sure that we do all that we can, to continue to build the bridge that survives, and continues to permeate in the Northern Territory,” was one line, for example.
“Every critical incident includes humans. We need to start understanding that as a collective community. We have to make change to the social demographic that continues to present and permeate aspects of the Northern Territory,” was another.
And while the butchered speech, that drifted sometimes into incoherence, was disturbing, it was the seeming lack of understanding of the justice system, and his role in it, coupled with the lack of awareness of what was truly at stake, and how both his officers and the Aboriginal community might feel, that was the truly concerning omission.
And while trying to appear as a statesman, the uniter of a divided community, he may only have made it more divided – if anyone could understand what he was actually saying. His unintelligibility may have actually lessened the damage.
There was also a menacing underlying anger, a passive aggressiveness bursting through his pleather statesmanship, that was accusatory and almost conspiratorial, like there was greater truth to be unveiled at some point that the Supreme Court had failed to discover.
“… The coronial inquest that is due later this year will oblige us to maintain our level of respect and not continue, as others have, to proffer opinions and views in the absence of fact,” he said.
“I look forward to our institutional response as part of the coronial inquest where the facts will come to the fore that will diminish a significant amount of the mistruths and the rhetoric that is out there that has had no basis or foundation.”
This managed to fuel the rage of one normally shy police officer, who raised poignant questions to the NT Independent.
“I’m pissed off, what do you mean the truth will come out at the coronial? What was the Supreme Court trial about? Was there truth hidden at the Supreme Court that will suddenly come out in the coronial? Misinformation? What fucking misinformation? It’s a Supreme Court trial, open to the public and reported on, where is the misinformation? What a wanker. Wouldn’t even take a question from the media.”
A coronial inquiry will look purely at how Kumanjayi Walker died and why, and if there was anything police did that contributed to it. Any notion of political interference into the murder charge that he might be referring to, will not be part of a coronial.
It leads to the question, did police withhold any evidence in this trial?
“We respect the integrity of court processes. Inclusive of criminal. Inclusive of coronial. And inclusive of civil. And that is the domain that we operate under,” Mr Chalker said.
This was after Supreme Court Judge Dean Mildren last year rejected a move to ban the publication of the allegation Mr Chalker and senior executive members intentionally withheld evidence from the defence team and the Director of Public Prosecutions in the murder case.
And, as highlighted last week by the NT Independent, the prosecutor in a hearing against a man accused of throwing a “burning chemical” at police, did not have the chemical analysis, even though Mr Chalker said publicly in mid-December that he had it, and that it would be part of the prosecution brief.
Police Commissioner a difficult job, golf trips sometimes cut short
What the Police Commissioner was tasked to do yesterday was extremely difficult, especially given the extreme and uncompromising polar opposites at play; the anger of some Aborginal Territorians about the verdict, and some dubious police actions the court exposed, and the anger by NT Police members and some of the public, that Const Rolfe was charged with murder at all.
It sounded like Mr Chalker was trying his best and came within the territory of words and emotion needed.
“We’ve all gone to too many funerals. We all had too many visits to hospitals where people have suffered trauma. And we as a community have to speak up against it and stop it,” he said.
“There is pain in sections of our community, and we are part of that community, and know that we need to be there to help you, and we’ve worked tirelessly to make that happen.
“We ask that everyone who is mourning, is allowed to mourn respectfully. And our officers will offer the utmost empathy to those who are struggling.”
But it was without context and the framing of this as an actual human problem, without mentioning humans, was meaningless. It was literally hard to understand what he was talking about.
Remember the missing words: Zach Rolfe; Kumanjayi Walker; police shooting; murder trial; died; Aboriginal community; not guilty.
And then, bizarrely, he followed it with this:
“As I say, instances such as this, and unfortunately we’ve had another critical incident this week, followed by further critical incidents, with a house fire where we’ve had to recover a body.”
Now keep in mind, this first “critical incident” he is referring to is when a police officer shot at an indigenous man in Palmerston six times, hitting him enough to be life-threatening.
But he makes it seem like he doesn’t understand the difference between someone dying in a house fire, and police shooting at a man six times.
And remember, this is the first time the NT’s Police Commissioner has publicly addressed that shooting.
No resignation yet
The NT Independent exposed the fact he had planned, and carried out a trip to South Australia to play golf, in the same week the Rolfe trial was ending.
Mr Chalker came back to Darwin early, we were told by sources, because this paper put questions to his media unit.
He snuck back into town, avoided fronting a press conference on Thursday, and then referred to the latest shooting as a “critical incident”, just like a house fire.
How can an Indigenous man be shot by NT Police, in the same week another officer’s murder trial for the same thing wrapped up, with the Police Commissioner refusing to speak about it publicly?
His performance was reminiscent of the Territory’s first COVID-19 death incident, when he announced at a press conference that he was criminally investigating a woman, who only a month earlier he had publicly accused of lying and bringing the virus into the NT. Despite being directly asked if he was investigating her, this is what he said:
“A death has occurred in the Northern Territory linked to COVID. COVID had not previously been in the Northern Territory in an environment where it couldn’t be contained,” he said.
“We will now investigate to identify what the causation may have been that ultimately led to COVID being contracted by the lady that passed away last night, and whether there’s any criminality in relation to that.”
It’s like he thinks that by stringing together a group of long words and cop jargon, he will elevate himself into a legal intellectual, a “Super Cop” occupying an anointed status.
But it comes across as nonsense.
Then there was his hollow talk yesterday about building relationships with Aboriginal communities, which may turn out to be true, but it didn’t seem like Aboriginal people generally felt that way. And in the almost seven minutes he never said the words “Aboriginal” or “Indigenous”, except once, when talking about Aboriginal liaison officers.
Then he descended into the seemingly petulant child, angry about an ungrateful public, with a brief inexplicable reference to those unrelated deaths.
“We have seen the building of relationships that are respectful, where police officers are an integral part of the communities they serve,”’ he said.
“And yet in spite of all that, we continue to respond to jobs that no one else is prepared to do.”
It is hard to know exactly what those six minutes and 33 seconds were about, but perhaps they were the final reason for his resignation.