Deathscapes

Dispatch Perth - Police Pursuit Inquest

Deathscapes

Dispatch: Inquest into the deaths of Kyrone Eades, Amy-Lee Armstrong-Ugle and Ashley De Agrela

October 2nd 2019, Perth Central Law Courts, Courtroom 81

Dispatch by Michelle Bui

 

Almost four years on from a police pursuit in Cockburn, Western Australia, that culminated in the deaths of three people – Kyrone Eades (24), Amy-Lee Armstrong-Ugle (25) and Ashley De Agrela (19) – a coronial inquest hearing considered their deaths. The one-day hearing was overseen by Coroner Barry King who, as we previously wrote, presided over the inquest into Ali Jaffari’s death in immigration detention.

The families of two of the crash victims, Mr Eades and Ms Armstrong-Ugle, a young couple and parents to three children who are now in foster care, were represented by the Aboriginal Legal Service WA (ALS). Mr Eades’ Mother, Francina Wynne, as well as an Uncle, a few Aunties and some younger male relatives attended the inquest. Inside the courtroom, they were flanked by the typical markers of a deaths in custody inquest; blue uniforms and a squad of white bodies with Western Australian Police (WAPOL) lanyards around their necks. Shortly after the proceedings commenced, a woman entered the court and sat in the first row directly in front of Francina Wynne. Her laptop opened to reveal the WAPOL insignia, which incorporates the same state coat of arms that the Coroner sat beneath.  As I looked around at the bodies that filled the space, I wondered how the family felt being surrounded by people who are employed to uphold a racist institution that routinely targets and kills Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with impunity.

It was purported that they key consideration of the inquest would be what role WAPOL played in the deaths of Mr Eades, Ms Armstrong-Ugle and Mr De Agrela, who were passengers in a vehicle they had been pursuing until shortly before it crashed. At some point between the opening of the inquest and when the first WAPOL witness began his emotional description of arriving at the crash scene, it became apparent that the dominant narrative of this inquest would be one where the tables were turned to position the perpetrators as the traumatised victims in need of care. I imagine that this must have been the logical interpretation of events from the perspective of the majority white court, who clearly demonstrated much more empathy for those two officers than for the family members sitting at the back of the courtroom. As the day went on it appeared increasingly unlikely that the Coroner would raise any substantial criticisms of the conduct of the WAPOL officers, nor would it be suggested that they were in any way accountable for these deaths. A familiar routine unfolded, where state actors worked to exonerate the police and in doing so reinforced the idea that the lives of Indigenous people are expendable.

In this case, as with many others, the inquest effectively reproduced and amplified the violent, racialised and asymmetrical relations of power between the now-dead victims and their families, and the police. While the voices of family members were silenced and sidelined, effectively given the prominence of a footnote, the evidence of the two WAPOL officers who drove the pursuing vehicle was centred, informing the trajectory of the inquest’s narrative and the corresponding media coverage.

The care afforded to both of the white, male WAPOL officers during the hearing contrasted significantly with the ways in which coroners courts have typically treated Aboriginal families. There was consistent acknowledgement of the trauma that the officers had experienced through the framing and nature of questions asked. They were treated with sensitivity and respect. The police were humanised through the process of giving evidence while the crash victims were represented merely as bodies: as objects of trauma, rather than individuals with lives, relationships and connections that extended far beyond what a court could ever contain.

The court’s positioning of the WAPOL officers translated into news headlines like, ‘”It was terrible”: Officer recounts horror of arriving at Cockburn crash after police pursuit’ on WA Today, ‘Police break down while recounting horrific fatal drug-fuelled pursuit crash’ on Channel 9 and ‘WA Police officer recalls “terrible” screams from crash wreck after fatal Perth high-speed chase’ on the ABC. In each of these headlines and the articles that follow, the emotional toll of the ‘incident’ on the WAPOL officers is centred. Rather than being named as actors complicit in orchestrating the horrific scene that unfolded, they are positioned as passive, traumatised witnesses who sacrificed their personal psychological wellbeing in the course of duty. In a clear demonstration of white privilege, their emotions were given significantly more weight than the grief of Mr Eades’ family which appeared to remain largely unintelligible to the court and a secondary issue to the journalists.

After being asked how his involvement in the pursuit and witnessing the crash scene had impacted him, the first WAPOL officer (Senior Constable Joel Vanson) who was driving the car was asked whether it has affected how he would respond now to similar incidents. He indicated that he’d ‘reluctantly’ engaged in pursuits since but that he had followed protocol in this instance and therefore wouldn’t have done anything differently nor would he respond differently in future. He stated that he was not deeply invested in policing traffic and pursuing vehicles and that rather his interest was in apprehending people who breach the law. It seems this opinion is not withstanding the fact that three people who had not breached the law were killed in the course of apprehending the one person who had. The sentiments of Senior Constable Vanson echo those of a Senior Constable involved in the fatal pursuit of 15 year old Benjamin Ware in 2011, who stated, ‘I’m paid to stop offenders and he was offending at the time.’ These responses suggest a pervasive culture within the police force where ‘law enforcement’ is held as the priority regardless of whether those who they criminalise are killed in the process.

The second officer (Senior Constable Darren Cramer) who was the passenger in the police car, presented similarly to the first officer; however, unlike Mr Vanson, he stated that he was aware there were passengers in the car they were pursuing. He described arriving at the scene of the crash and locating the front seat passenger who was seriously injured but still alive and then subsequently locating the bodies of Mr Eades and Ms Armstrong-Ugle who were strewn across the road and the pavement some distance from the car. After this he paused to note that ‘it might sound silly’ and that he didn’t mean to say this to disrespect the families but that one of the saddest parts he remembers is that amidst all the chaos ‘a f*cking little bird got knocked out of its nest’ and that this image has stayed with him. He choked up at this point. I thought it telling that he considered it necessary to mention this to the court, in the presence of family members who had just heard descriptions of their loved ones’ mangled bodies at the scene. Simultaneously shocking and unsurprising, it was as if he felt more closely connected to the bird than to the Black bodies of Mr Eades’ and Ms Armstrong-Ugle who were among the human casualties of their actions.

While the effects on both officers were noted and they talked about how horrific the crash was, counsel for WAPOL and the WAPOL witnesses refused to reflect on what an alternative response could be. Rather, the narrative was that they’d followed the book, they were ‘doing their job’ and unfortunately this resulted in a tragic loss of life. Such a tragic loss of life however did not warrant a review of protocols or change in policing culture – indeed they actively resisted this idea. In relation to another recent police pursuit inquest, Coroner King noted, ‘The police officers were trying to do their job…I can’t condemn them for doing what they did.’  The prosecutor in the same case, Sean Stocks, likewise stated, ‘If somebody dies it’s not the fault of the police for pursuing you, it’s your fault for not stopping.’ Here it appears that the courts can always be relied upon to reproduce the narrative that the police are faultless, this is business as usual and settler law is working exactly as intended.

It was highlighted in a 2017 inquest into the deaths of six people, that between 2010-2016 twenty-seven people died in crashes connected to police pursuits in WA. One of the people whose death was considered during this inquest was 23-year-old Aboriginal woman Ms Narrier who died in November 2014, when the car her partner was driving crashed into another vehicle. There are parallels to this case in that the driver was also drug-affected and the police terminated the pursuit when the vehicle moved to the wrong side of the road, just moments prior to the crash. State Coroner Fogliani concluded that the police did not cause or contribute to her death. This inquest only resulted in one recommendation, while no recommendations were made following the inquests of 15 year old Mr Ware and 13 year old Ms Samson.

In the final oral submissions, the ALS lawyer, Chloe Wood, submitted some statements by the family that described the impact that the deaths of Mr Eades and Ms Armstrong-Ugle has had on them and their children. The couple were described as happy people, full of life, who were greatly loved by their families and community. These remarks echoed previous comments from cousin, Katina Beresi, who shortly after the crash stated, ‘They were beautiful people. They were just getting a lift and (were) in the wrong place at the wrong time…I am really feeling for (the kids) as they are going to live with no parents now… I think the law should change in pursuing cars, because look what happened…We lost family members, and we have got to grieve for the rest of our lives.’

Following this brief opportunity for the families voices to be included, Australia’s racialised history of white paternalism was reproduced in the Coroner’s shocking and disrespectful final statements to the family. Rather than acknowledging the family’s loss and trauma in any meaningful way, Coroner King instead lectured them. He told them ‘keep your kids safe’ and suggested that they ensure their kids didn’t get into fast cars or take meth or accept rides with people taking meth. He said this as if it was the sole lesson to be derived from the inquest and in doing so shifted the blame onto the victims. His patronising advice was ridden with assumptions about the ability of Aboriginal women to parent their children and denied the reality that young Aboriginal people are targeted by police. To WAPOL he did not offer any unsolicited advice: after all they had been exonerated by his court and would no doubt continue to do their jobs. A job which, an Aunty suggested, amounts to ‘killing our kids’.

 


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