NT Police Association president Paul McCue said “political interference was alive” when Constable Zach Rolfe was charged for murder in 2019, implicating senior NT Labor politicians for influencing the decision to lay charges.
Despite growing calls from the general public and rank-and-file members for Police Commissioner Jamie Chalker to resign, Mr McCue did not criticise Mr Chalker and said he would have a “discussion with him” about “a lot of upset members”.
Mr McCue focused his press conference on Chief Minister Michael Gunner and Police Minister Nicole Manison’s attendance at Yuendumu in November 2019, to meet with the community just two days after Constable Rolfe had shot and killed Kumanjayi Walker in a botched arrest.
Mr McCue said it was proper for newly appointed Commissioner Jamie Chalker to attend the community after the shooting but not the politicians, which he labeled a “catastrophe”.
“[Chalker’s] decision to attend Yuendumu on Tuesday 12 November was the right one,” Mr McCue said. “But the attendance of the Chief Minister Michael Gunner, and the Minister for Police, Nicole Manison, was a catastrophe and should never have occurred.
“It does not matter, in one respect, whose decision that was nor the motivation behind that visit. But in this case, perception is reality, political interference was alive.”
It was during this visit – one day before Constable Rolfe was charged with murder – that Mr Gunner told the crowd in Yuendumu who were calling for justice that “consequences will flow” from an independent coronial investigation into the arrest.
“Because the coroner is independent, even I can’t tell the coroner to do that, but I know the coroner will listen to you,” he said at the time.
“The coroner will seek to answer those questions you have, those questions I have – what happened that night and why, so justice can be done.
“I can promise you that investigation will be independent and consequences will flow as a result.”
Constable Rolfe was charged the next day, which Mr McCue reiterated on Monday was not enough time for a proper investigation to take place.
“The Chief Minister’s comment that day before an emotionally charged audience was irresponsible, if not clumsy and one which let down the police and the community of Yuendumu,” he said.
“Remember, witnesses to the investigation could have been in that audience. Yet in a foolish attempt to explain a process he has no experience in, he talked about consequences.
“By doing so he set in motion a sense of expectation for the audience that there was some sort of wrongdoing and there will be consequences for that. He will no doubt disagree. But we all know in this case, perception matters here.”
Mr McCue added that the evidence presented at the trial showed there was not enough substance to “lay the most serious charge of murder on Constable Rolfe, not even close to enough”.
“The actions of senior decision makers in arresting and charging Constable Rolfe must be interrogated and answers must be provided,” he said.
“Why were the concerns of senior investigators being set aside regarding the speed in which charges were being considered against Constable Rolfe?”
Mr McCue said later that he did not believe Mr Gunner was part of the discussions around laying charges and that the final decision came from “the senior person (in police) overseeing the investigation”.
That person was Assistant Commissioner Nick Anticich, who resigned last year. Mr McCue said it was revealed during the trial that Mr Anticich had not made any notes about the “critical decision-making process” to charge Constable Rolfe.
“That is not only a complete abandonment of your responsibilities, but it poses the obvious question why?” he said.
Mr Gunner and Ms Manison did not respond to the NT Independent’s request for comment. Instead, Mr Gunner provided a statement to the NT News.
“There has been deliberate and irresponsible misinterpretation of my words from that day,” Mr Gunner was quoted as saying today.
“This has inflamed an already tragic situation.”
The NT News added that “Mr Gunner said he played no role in the investigations that led to Zach Rolfe being charged with murder”. But the statement did not explicitly rule out involvement around the decision to press charges.
Ms Manison meanwhile has not made public comment since the verdict was handed down on Friday.
Calls for inquiry into ‘political interference’
Mr McCue’s comments follow the Opposition CLP’s call for an independent inquiry solely into “serious questions over the appearance of political interference”, which Mr McCue has backed.
“We hope the coronial process, yet to be undertaken, will bring some closure for the deceased’s family, friends and the community of Yuendumu, who are still mourning,” Ms Finocchairo said on Friday.
“This ordeal has left a community divided, a police force abandoned, the politicisation of a police shooting and a total absence of leadership and fortitude.
“The extraordinary circumstances surrounding the decision to charge and bring Constable Rolfe to trial requires nothing less than a full, independent, inquiry.”
Constable Rolfe was last week found not guilty of murder and two alternative charges of manslaughter and engaging in a violent act causing death in relation to the shooting death of Kumanjayi Walker in Yuendumu in November 2019. The unanimous verdict was handed down Friday afternoon after a five-week trial.
His lawyer, David Edwardson, mimicked Mr Gunner’s infamous comments on the steps of the Supreme Court after the verdict, telling reporters that “public figures” had said a lot about Constable Rolfe before he was charged and that “consequences will flow”.
Dates for the coronial inquiry have not been confirmed, but it is expected to start in September presided over by Judge Elisabeth Armitage and run for three months, based in Alice Springs and Yuendumu.