The legal representatives of the family of Aboriginal woman Rebecca Maher, who died in police custody in New South Wales, say her death could have been prevented and accuse police of using "semantics" to justify not using a custody notification service.
"How often did they check on her in that cell? Was there a video recording in that cell and why didn’t they notify the family that she was in that cell? They didn’t notify the family until at least six hours after the death," Gary Oliver, CEO of the NSW Aboriginal Legal Service, which is representing Maher's family, told BuzzFeed News.
Maher, a 36-year-old Wiradjuri woman, was found dead in a Maitland police station cell at 6am on 19 July.
"About 12.45am police located and detained a 36-year-old woman who appeared intoxicated. The woman was transported by police to Maitland Police Station and placed in a holding cell. About 6am the woman was found deceased," a police media release said on the day of Maher's death.
"Investigators are hoping to speak with an anonymous male person who called police, and the occupants of a blue Commodore, who witnessed the woman’s actions prior to the arrival of police," police said in a statement six days later.
Maher is the first Aboriginal person to die in an NSW police cell since 2000, when the Custody Notification Service (CNS) was introduced.
The CNS was one of the key recommendations from the royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody. It is essentially a phone line that lets the Aboriginal Legal Service know an Indigenous person is in custody so it can offer them legal advice and help keep officers accountable in the duty of care.
It is compulsory for Department of Corrections staff and NSW police to use the CNS when an Aboriginal person is arrested and placed in custody. However, police are not obliged to use the CNS if the person is detained, meaning they are in custody without charge.
In Maher's case, police say she was detained for her own safety, which would mean that they were not obliged to use the CNS.
Oliver is alarmed by what he calls the "use of semantics" by police. He says the CNS should be used for an Aboriginal person in custody regardless of how they got there.
"The NSW police force does know about the CNS and have a procedure within the station and they failed on two occasions," Oliver said. "They failed to ring on the first occasion [when Maher was brought into the station] and now we hear she was detained and wasn’t arrested. They then failed to even notify us when she was found dead at 6am in the morning, they didn't even notify the family until six hours after the death.
"If you look at [the ALS's] relationship with people like corrective services, they notify within an hour of a death in a cell."
A police spokesperson said: "A critical investigation is underway with all information to be provided to the coroner. It would be inappropriate to comment further."
Formerly with BuzzFeed News, Allan Clarke is a NITV reporter based in Sydney.
Contact Allan Clarke at arielle.benedek+AC@buzzfeed.com.
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