A Northern Territory police officer who shot dead an Indigenous teenager should face traditional payback to help restore harmony in his outback community, an inquest has been told.
Const Zachary Rolfe shot Kumanjayi Walker three times during an attempted arrest in Yuendumu, north-west of Alice Springs, in November 2019. Rolfe was found not guilty of murder and two alternative charges after a six-week trial in the NT supreme court in Darwin earlier this year.
An inquest into the Warlpiri man’s death heard on Thursday that traditional payback within customary or tribal law was often misunderstood by non-Indigenous Australians as revenge.
“There is great misinterpretation across the NT when it comes to the concept of payback,” the NT police officer and Arrernte man Snr Const Brad Wallace told the inquest.
“The concept of payback is interpreted more from a contemporary westernised side as being revenge or punishment. The knowledge I’ve gained in my life … it’s based more around peacemaking and bringing balance back to the community.”
Wallace said he had witnessed a payback ceremony in his youth and “it was a process of peacemaking between two clan groups”. “It stopped the situation from further developing,” he told the court.
The counsel assisting the inquest, Peggy Dwyer, said the Yuendumu community had told the coroner that “payback would involve spearing” Rolfe.
“In this case where the community are aggrieved understandably by Kumanjayi’s death and Const Rolfe causing death this court can’t condone grievous bodily harm to be committed against the constable,” Dwyer said on Thursday.
Rolfe shot Walker in the back and torso as the 19-year-old resisted being placed in handcuffs at his grandmother’s home.
The not-guilty verdict led the Warlpiri community to call for alternative justice. Frustrations were exacerbated during the inquest by some police officers’ evidence that demonstrated a misunderstanding of what payback was.
Elder Ned Jampijinpa Hargraves told reporters visiting Yuendumu on Tuesday that payback needed to happen so the remote community could heal. “Deep in our hearts, deep in our minds, deep in the community we want to see justice,” he said.
Outside court on Thursday, the emerging Warlpiri leader Samara Fernandez‐Brown said Rolfe should lose his job with the NT police force.
She declined to answer questions about what form of payback would be acceptable for her community to heal other than spearing but said there were other forms of customary law available.
“It would need to be a conversation with the elders to see if there would be another option that would allow them to feel the same outcome,” she said.
“For myself, as Kumanjayi’s cousin, I would feel some sort of justice to an extent with Zachary Rolfe being fired. But even then it’s not going to be enough, knowing he is still around people.”
Rolfe on Wednesday refused to answer questions from the coroner that could “expose” him to a penalty while telling the inquest he was now working in a Darwin office because “I’ve been banned from all police stations”.
The inquest continues on Friday.