The Coroner in the inquest into Yorta Yorta woman Tanya Day’s death in police custody has agreed to look at whether systemic racism played a role in Ms Day’s treatment and ultimate death.
In the momentous decision, the Acting Victorian State Coroner Caitlin English ruled that she “will allow witnesses to be questioned as to whether racism played a part of their decision making, including Ms Day’s treatment, options considered, their motivations and potential unintended effects of their decision making.” The Coroner has also allowed an expert report on systemic racism to be included in the material and will allow witnesses to be asked to produce relevant “policies, procedures and training.”
Tanya Day’s children, who have advocated for the coroner to investigate the role racism played in their mother’s death since the beginning, said:
“We are extremely pleased Coroner English has accepted our submission of systemic racism, and hope that doing so shines a light on the system that failed our mother and led to her dying in police custody.”
On 5 December 2017, Tanya Day was taken off a train in Castlemaine after a V/Line officer called the police. She was then arrested and locked up for the offence of being drunk in a public place. In custody, Tanya Day fell and hit her head on a number of occasions causing a brain haemorrhage that she later died from.
“The past 18 months has been particularly painful for our family. Our mum was a beautiful woman who deserved dignity and respect especially at her most vulnerable time. We will continue to fight for justice for her as she did for others.”
At the last directions hearing, it was revealed that at the time of Ms Day’s death, and Torres Strait Islander women were approximately 10 times more likely to be targeted by police for being drunk in public than non-Indigenous women.
Ruth Barson, Legal Director at the Human Rights Law Centre, who is representing the family, said it was important that the link between the offence of public drunkenness, racialized decision making and Aboriginal deaths in custody be explored.
“It is right for the Coroner to look into whether racism played a part in Tanya Day going from being asleep on a train to dying in police custody. The truth of the matter is that Tanya Day would be alive if the Victorian Government had done the right thing and repealed public drunkenness laws – laws that criminalise behaviour for some people that is completely overlooked for others,” said Barson.
Over the past three decades, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community and numerous expert reports, including the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody in 1991, have recommended that the offence of public drunkenness be abolished and replaced with a public-health response.
“If Premier Andrews does not get rid of the offence of public drunkenness and confront the racism that leads to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people being targeted and locked up – then deaths in custody will continue. If somebody is too drunk, they need help to get home or for an ambulance to be called – they should not be behind bars,” said Barson.
Michelle Bennett, Communications Director: 0419 100 519