Apology to John Pat's family but Aboriginal deaths in custody on the increase

WA government agrees to John Pat apology

NITV SBS Report 27 September 2013

The West Australian Parliament has agreed to make a formal apology to the family of Roebourne Teenager, John Pat who died in police custody in 1983.

John Pat's brutal death - along with many others - became a "cause celebre" leading, in the end, to the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

WA Deputy Opposition Leader, Ben Wyatt put forward a motion for an apology on Wednesday, which was unanimously supported by the house.

The next step is for the apology to be formalised and given, possibly opening a window for legal action by the victim's family.

Protests commemorating John Pat's death were held around the country on the 28 September 2013 in Sydney, Melbourne, Cairns and Adelaide.

     Melbourne Rally Images - Thirty Years But Still No Justice National 28Sept13
     Brisbane Rally Images - Black Deaths in Custody 28Sept13

This Jan Mayman ABC Radio report from 1983 is very telling of the cold situation in Roebourne at the time
ABC Radio Report - Maisie Pat speaks with Geoff Hutchison - 26th September 2013
Apology to John Pat's family but Aboriginal deaths in custody on the increase

Emma Wynne ABC News 26 September 2013

Aboriginal deaths in custody in WA are higher than ever, despite the Royal Commission.

Maisie Pat was just 14 and at high school in Perth when she received a phone call to say her 16 year old brother John had died in the police cells in Roebourne.

She flew home the next morning to a town in the grip of grief and anger.

Numerous witnesses said that they saw off-duty police officers pick a fight with John Pat and his friends at the local pub on September 28, 1983.

He was then arrested and taken to the police lock-up, where he died of massive head injuries later that night.

Four officers and a police aide were later charged with his manslaughter but acquitted at trial.

John Pat's death was one of a number of Aboriginal deaths in custody that sparked the Royal Commission from 1987-1991, making 339 recommendations, including that police take Aboriginal people into custody only as a last resort.

But 30 years after John's death, his family say the grief is still raw and the hope that the Royal Commission would bring about change has faded.

Speaking at a rally outside WA parliament, Maisie Pat says nothing has changed.

"There's no justice for my people and all people of today. My brother's life was taken, it only seems like yesterday it was taken from me and I still wish I had my big brother here today."

Every year John's mother, Mavis Pat, has travelled to Perth to mark his death.

Last year she said, "My son has never left me, I remember him every day. There forever remains a hole in my heart. I had hoped much would change with the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody but sadly it appears little has changed."

Yesterday in Perth the Pat family did receive an unreserved apology, moved by Labor MP Ben Wyatt and passed unanimously by the Parliament, but it's only a partial comfort.

"I'd like to see those policemen pay the time, for their crimes," Maisie Pat said.

"They are the ones who need to apologise to me, my Mum and my family."

Marc Newhouse from WA Death in Custody Watch Committee, which formed in 1993, says sometimes he does feel like he is banging his head against a brick wall in the committee's campaigns.

"The problem is that there have been some useful changes but overwhelmingly the situation has become worse."

"There are more Aboriginal people dying in prison today, and there's a direct correlation with the almost doubling of the number of Aboriginal people in prison."

In 2008, 25 years after Pat's death, the community reeled again after Aboriginal elder Mr Ward (his first name is not published for cultural reasons) died in horrific circumstances in a prisoner transport van in the goldfields.
Mr Ward died of heatstroke after a four hour journey in the back of a prison van without air conditioning where temperatures reached over 50 degrees.

He sustained a third degree burn to his abdomen, caused by the heat of the metal seat, and collapsed shortly before the prison van arrived in Kalgoorlie.

In that case, there was a damning coronial inquiry, successful civil prosecutions and the state government offered a record ex gratia payment to the family.

However Newhouse says governments are failing to take step to reduce Indigenous disadvantage.

"It seems to be blatantly obvious to a lot of people in the community what needs to be done and that is to set targets around reducing the number of people coming into contact with the criminal justice system and to invest resources into building communities, not more prisons."

Maisie Pat says when she turned 18 she 'went off the rails in the pubs' and felt huge anger and fear towards the police, but has since chosen not to judge people.

"Me and my people have tolerated so much since 1788, and I'm still going through what my old people went through. Even today we still get the same treatment now and again by specific police, some are good and some are bad, and we're going to have to accept that."