The Northern Territory Coroner has heard that Constable Zachary Rolfe was “repeatedly” involved in “worrying behaviour”, including failing to turn on his body-worn camera and making arrests, which led to injuries before Kumanjayi Walker’s death.
WARNING: Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander readers are cautioned that this article contains an image of a deceased person, used with permission of their family.
- NT’s coroner is investigating the effectiveness and appropriateness of police use of violence reports
- Constable Zachary Rolfe was involved in 46 reports of violence during his three years at Alice Springs
- There was no record of action taken in relation to complaints of the use of force
Part of a police report prepared for coroner Elisabeth Armitage was read Tuesday at the inquest into Kumanjayi Walker’s death.
It noted that Superintendent Virginia Read of the NT Police Professional Standards Command raised concerns about the use of force by Constable Rolfe in the months leading up to the shooting death of the 19-year-old Warlpiri-Luritja man during an attempted arrest in Yuendumu.
Kumanjayi Walker died in November 2019 from gunshot wounds inflicted by the officer who fired his Glock three times after Mr Walker stabbed him in the shoulder with scissors.
Constable Rolfe was found not guilty after a Supreme Court trial in March and Judge Armitage is currently leading a three-month investigation into the shooting.
The inquiry was heard despite Superintendent Read’s concerns that there was “no record of action by Alice Springs superiors” nor “no evidence that action was taken” in relation to Constable Rolfe.
The court heard that Constable Rolfe was involved in 46 counts of use of force during his three years at Alice Springs Police Station, none of which led to findings of unnecessary, excessive use of force.
Superintendent Jody Nobbs, who was not in Constable Rolfe’s chain of command, told the coroner he was “surprised” to hear no action had been taken.
“[If] that was an officer in your command… [and] You valued his tactical skills, you wanted to encourage him to use those tactical skills and avoid unnecessary use of force… how would you react?
“I would like to know how we got where we got from,” Superintendent Nobbs said.
“I can’t say definitively… [but] I think it’s a product of behaviors that have been modeled and imitated.
“It has taken me a long time in my career to recognize the essential importance of community involvement as opposed to what I saw as a young police officer as the traditional policing model, which was overt … police tactics.”
Superintendent Nobbs told the coroner that young officers need “good, solid” mentors and that behavior in the police force can be the result of anything from job difficulties or mental health issues to “willful disobedience”.
He said he was “extremely disappointed” to hear that two of Constable Rolfe’s police sergeants who were “critical” to his development as an officer were involved in a series of text exchanges with the constable.
The lyrics used racist language and dismissed jokes about “playing up” for body-worn cameras.
Violent incidents reviewed
Body worn footage from the arrest of a 14-year-old boy in 2018 was played to the coroner, in which Constable Rolfe throws down a bin to pull out the teenager hidden inside.
Superintendent Nobbs agreed it was “violent” and “unnecessary” and told the coroner he was “baffled” by how the use of force in this incident was deemed appropriate by the Professional Standards Command.
He found he did not have access to the full details of the investigation, and the court heard an ombudsman’s report was eventually closed.
Judge Armitage said among the issues examined by the inquiry was the effectiveness of reviewing the use of force within the police force.
“The question is, where do we go from here? Were these actions fair and reasonable?” said Judge Armitage.
Acting Senior Sergeant Alistair Gall, who reviewed a number of reports of Constable Rolfe’s use of force, told the inquest he was unaware of the extent of the complaints against the officer.
He also said that a local judge found in early 2019 that Constable Rolfe had “fabricated evidence” in relation to the arrest of Malcolm Ryder, who allegedly used violence.
‘Had you been aware of that, do you think Constable Rolfe would not be fit to serve as a General Duty Police Officer in the Northern Territory? At least until an investigation is completed?” asked Counsel Assisting Patrick Coleridge.
“It’s possible…but I couldn’t say categorically yes or no,” Acting Sergeant Gall Gall replied.
Mr Coleridge: “I take it you were not aware that in the run-up to its November 2019 operation, this squad was preparing a memorandum to the Director of Attorneys asking for advice regarding an offense of perjury?
Deputy Oberfeldwebel Gall: “I didn’t know that, Your Honor.”
Mr. Coleridge: “That would be a very important investigation, wouldn’t it?”
Deputy Oberfeldwebel Gall: “Yes, it would.”
Constable Rolfe was ultimately never charged and the investigation into Mr Ryder’s arrest has since been closed.
Acting Senior Sergeant Gall told the inquest he considered Constable Rolfe to be one of the most competent officers in his patrol squad who was “anxious to explore avenues of arrest”.
“He was intelligent, he was a good communicator, and if I asked Zach Rolfe anything, he would do it,” Acting Senior Sergeant Gall said.
Mr Coleridge asked: “Because he was a useful policeman, a skilled, useful and intelligent policeman, you were not concerned that there were increasing complaints of the use of force. Is that right?”
Deputy Oberfeldwebel Gall: “I was aware of some complaints about the use of force.”
“When I think about it now, whether at the time of deploying to Yuendumu or on every occasion when I assign him…if I had been holistically aware of every single one of his deployments of forces where there were problems, yes, those may have impacted my hiring of Zach Rolfe.
Acting Senior Sergeant Gall told the coroner that although he was both a manager and friend of Constable Rolfe, he did not find it difficult to verify his reports of the use of force.