NT police sergeant shared photo of topless Aboriginal woman with other officers, inquest told

<span>The NT police commissioner has told an inquest an Alice Springs sergeant sent a photo of a ‘topless Aboriginal lady in a public place’ to a WhatsApp group with other officers.</span><span>Photograph: Blake Sharp-Wiggins/The Guardian</span>
The NT police commissioner has told an inquest an Alice Springs sergeant sent a photo of a ‘topless Aboriginal lady in a public place’ to a WhatsApp group with other officers.Photograph: Blake Sharp-Wiggins/The Guardian

A Northern Territory police sergeant shared a photo of a topless Aboriginal woman with a WhatsApp group of other officers in Alice Springs, but his demotion was rescinded by the police commissioner, an inquest has been told.

The inquest into the deaths of four Aboriginal women at the hands of violent partners has been examining the responses of police and the government in the NT, which has the highest rates of domestic and family violence in Australia.

Under questioning, the NT police commissioner, Michael Murphy, admitted that a sergeant in Alice Springs had sent the photo of a “topless Aboriginal lady in a public place” to a WhatsApp group and a member of the group reported it to the professional standards command.

An internal inquiry recommended the officer be demoted from sergeant and transferred to the town of Katherine, Murphy said.

But Murphy told a Darwin court he rescinded that decision after the NT Police Association wrote to him. That was because the officer admitted to the act and had shown contrition. Murphy said the sergeant’s transfer to Katherine would have separated him from his family and he may have taken leave or left the force entirely.

Instead, Murphy said, the officer was transferred to Darwin and given a 12-month good behaviour bond, but not demoted. When asked by Phillip Boulten SC, representing one of the families, whether the officer was now a watch commander in Darwin, the commissioner said he “did not know [the sergeant’s] current location”.

Related: ‘This is our horror’: NT coroner investigates deaths of women at hands of their partners

Boulten told the court the WhatsApp message had been accompanied by some “obviously inappropriate and racist language”.

“I can’t remember exactly what the words were, Mr Boulten, but I agree with you,” Murphy replied.

Murphy said “on reflection” he would commit to taking firmer action. “As far as that type of behaviour and racist and misogynistic behaviours, my tolerance is quite low, because it’s about the cultural piece,” he said.

“I recognise it may not be isolated, but we’re creating an environment where people can report it, and on this occasion they did. And we’re encouraging people to identify poor behaviours or communications or conduct or messaging or comments, to report it to their managers or to the professional standards command or to the Independent Commission Against Corruption.”

Murphy had been giving evidence about the role of police in responding to the rising rates of domestic and family violence in the NT.

The NT’s coroner, Elisabeth Armitage, has combined the deaths of Kumanjayi Haywood, Ngeygo Ragurrk, Miss Yunupingu and Kumarn Rubuntja to examine systemic failings across the domestic, sexual and family violence sector.

Murphy told the inquest police had recorded a 117% increase in domestic and family violence over the past 10 years, and that the force expected it to rise by a further 73% over the next decade.

The inquest has heard evidence of “chronic and shocking” underfunding across the sector, which contributed to each woman’s brutal death at the hands of their domestic partner.

On Monday, the counsel assisting the coroner, Peggy Dwyer, told the court that NT police spent 882,000 hours on domestic violence in 2022-23. Based on those figures, Dwyer said, the projected costs of police response to domestic violence by 2026 would be a minimum of $156m a year.

Murphy said NT police had received $570m over four years, including a commitment of 200 additional officers and 71 administrative staff. He acknowledged police faced challenges in recruitment and retention, there were concerns about racism within the force and there was a significant number of officers on long-term sick leave.

In August 2023, the inquest heard the Northern Territory government had rejected calls for $180m to be spent over five years for women’s shelters, behaviour change programs and policy reform. Instead it provided the sector with $20m over two years.

Under questioning on Monday, Murphy agreed that $180m was a “modest request”.

The NT government director of strategic policy in the domestic, family and sexual violence reduction division, Anna Davis, told the court the territory needed “sustainable needs-based funding” from the commonwealth.

Due to its small population, the NT receives just 4.6% of federal funding under the national partnership agreement on family and domestic violence.

Three more Aboriginal women have died and since the inquest began in July, and “domestic violence is likely to have been central” to their deaths, the coroner said.

Armitage recalled the inquest on Monday to seek an update from police and the government on how they are addressing domestic and family violence in the territory.

She said about six months since the inquest last sat, it was “still not clear to me what has actually been done to start addressing the urgent need in the Northern Territory”.

“Family and domestic violence is being discussed across the nation, in part because of a number of high-profile and shocking deaths in the southern states. But it is clear to me from the evidence that I have heard that family and domestic violence in the Northern Territory is a national shame.”

• In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is on 13 11 14 and the national family violence counselling service is on 1800 737 732