The WA cops rounding up Indigenous kids: a ‘toxic and racist environment’ | Australia news


One of the worst moments of Jim Taylor’s eight-year career as a Western Australian police officer was the day he strip-searched a 10-year-old Aboriginal boy.

Taylor, now 44, was working in Perth in the Juvenile Aid Group, or “Jag”. He says he was driving around the city’s central business district with his senior sergeant and two other officers when they came across a group of four young Aboriginal kids. They rounded them up and took them back to the station.

“They weren’t committing any offence or anything like that … we were actually exceeding our power by doing that,” Taylor says.

At the station, he says, the kids were strip-searched. Taylor says he was instructed to strip-search the youngest.

“I’m supposed to make him sit down and cough and things like that,” he says. “I didn’t make him do that. I just made him take his clothes off and put [them] back on quickly … it made me uncomfortable.”

The use of strip-searches for children is supposed to be reserved for extreme or exceptional circumstances, according to Taylor. But he says kids were strip-searched “pretty much all the time”, even when they hadn’t committed an offence.

He left the WA police force in 2012, appalled by what he describes as a “toxic and racist environment” in which Aboriginal people, including children, were routinely targeted and harassed.

Jim Taylor

Taylor: ‘The easiest way to inflate the arrest numbers was to target the Aboriginal people.’ Photograph: David Dare Parker/The Guardian

When he first joined in 2004, his view was very different. He had migrated from Turkey and was determined to contribute to his new country.

But he was shocked to see officers approach Indigenous people on the street and provoke them with racist language to “arc them up”. He claims this was a deliberate tactic.

“The easiest way to inflate the arrest numbers was to target the Aboriginal people, especially those homeless ones who are living in the streets, because they’re extremely easy targets,” Taylor says.

“That’s the [WA] police’s bread and butter…targeting Indigenous people and making it look like they are doing a lot of work.”

Police were often legally required to give cautions to young people, rather than charge them, but Taylor says that didn’t stop them picking up Indigenous kids who had committed no offence, just to “get them off the street”.

He says kids as young as 13 were regularly handcuffed in the process.

“Handcuffing is actually the last solution … [but] handcuffing was used as a form of punishment.”

A spokesperson for the West Australian police told Guardian Australia that handcuffs and other restraints are used when police suspect there is a risk of bodily injury to any person, escape from arrest or detention, or damage to property.

Specific questions about the strip-searching of children were not answered, but they said the force had “undertaken significant steps to enhance the relationship between police officers and the Indigenous community” including an apology from the commissioner to Aboriginal people for past injustices.

They also said the force had continued to “build upon its long-standing Aboriginal Cultural Awareness education” including a new, mandatory online training course for members of the WA police force, that complements place-based training and inductions.

On average in WA, three-quarters of young people in detention are Indigenous. Taylor believes police have a lot to answer for when it comes to this overrepresentation.

“The way police are approaching this issue is exacerbating the situation and making that perpetual cycle even stronger,” he says.

“It’s making things worse. And it’s making the emotional trauma worse and worse.”

‘You can’t arrest your way out of this’

This punitive approach to policing young Indigenous kids is something Jarin Baigent, a Wiradjuri woman, spent her career fighting against.

After a decade working for the NSW police force, where she specialised in youth affairs, in 2016 Baigent was sent to work for the royal commission into the detention and protection of children in the Northern Territory.

Jarin Baigent, a Wiradjuri woman and former NSW police officer, in Redfern, Sydney

Jarin Baigent, a Wiradjuri woman and former NSW police officer, in Redfern, Sydney. Photograph: David Maurice Smith/Oculi

She spent months travelling around the NT, meeting police officers. A frequent topic of discussion was how police could tackle the overrepresentation of Indigenous kids in youth detention.

Her message to the officers was simple: “You can’t arrest your way out of this.”

She laid out an alternate approach, which involved diverting kids away from the justice system and engaging with the Indigenous community.

“Talking about other options and working with the community that they’re actually policing in, it was almost like a whole different concept,” she says. “It’s almost like you’re talking about aliens.”

Baigent spent most of her career as a youth liaison officer in Redfern in inner Sydney, her home community. Her role often involved intervening after an arrest. She spent each day meeting young people and police, reviewing every offence involving a young person, and ensuring that kids were given the least punitive option appropriate: a warning, a caution, a youth justice conference – where the young person meets with the police and their victim – or, as a last option, court.

She says these were mostly young people who were “vulnerable” and caught “in a cycle of committing offences” but their first contact with the justice system was usually for minor matters.

One young person was fined twice on the same day for not wearing a helmet while riding a pushbike. Another child had racked up about $20,000 in debts.

While Baigent felt she had some success diverting kids away from the justice system, she says the most effective approach started well before an arrest.

She would regularly rise before dawn, along with Indigenous kids, community members and other police officers, to box it out in the heart of Redfern. The boxing program, run by the Aboriginal-owned Tribal Warrior Association, was called Clean Slate Without Prejudice, linking kids up with mentors and gluing disparate parts of this community together.

For the police, the goal of the program was to improve relationships with the Indigenous community and reduce petty crime. On all fronts, it worked.

The Redfern police superintendent at the time said the program had led to an 80% drop in juvenile robberies in its first year.

Clean Slate has now been running for more than a decade. Baigent resigned from the police force in 2019 but she still drops her kids off to box in the morning. She believes its success lies in the fact that it “wasn’t led by police, it was led by Aboriginal community”.

“Don’t try and fix the community, fix the force and invest in the community,” she says. “We’re sick of being led by a white man in uniform. We never needed [that].”

‘It makes me feel sick’

Since they left the police, Baigent and Taylor’s lives have changed dramatically. Last year they both took to the streets, Baigent in Sydney and Taylor in Perth, to march in Black Lives Matter protests.

In the wake of BLM, Taylor began speaking out about his experiences in the force. After his social media posts alleging systemic racism inside WA police were shared widely, he says he’s received death threats, but also a flood of support including from former and current police officers.

A Black Lives Matter rally at Perth’s Langley Park in June

A Black Lives Matter rally at Perth’s Langley Park in June. Photograph: Paul Kane/Getty Images

“I received so many messages from current coppers saying everything is the same [in the WA police force],” he says.

Looking back at his time in the force, he feels regret, especially when thinks about that 10-year-old, naked and alone at the station.

“It makes me feel sick … I’ve got children now, similar age, to that age,” he says.

“A 10-year-old is a child, [a] 10-year-old shouldn’t have criminal responsibility at all.”


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