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Rolfe’s leader ‘unaware of excessive force complaints’

Ex-constable Zachary Rolfe has failed in court challenges to avoid giving evidence at the inquest. (Aaron Bunch/AAP PHOTOS)

By Neve Brissenden in Darwin

The officer in charge of a constable who shot dead an Indigenous teenager has told an inquest he was unaware of complaints about Zachary Rolfe’s use of excessive force or his declining mental health.

The inquest into Kumanjayi Walker’s death resumed on Thursday in Alice Springs, more than 18 months after it began.

Mr Rolfe shot the 19-year-old three times while on duty in the remote Northern Territory community of Yuendumu in November 2019, but was acquitted of murder in a five-week trial.

Mr Rolfe was deployed to find Mr Walker as part of an Immediate Response Team based in Alice Springs.

IRT officer in charge Sergeant Lee Bauwens told the inquest he did not know about several complaints against Mr Rolfe.

“We know there had been a number of complaints about unjustified use of force … (and) a perception among people within the Alice Springs police station that Mr Rolfe was developing a bit of a reputation for the use of force,” counsel assisting Patrick Coleridge said.

Mr Coleridge referenced an arrest in 2018 where Mr Rolfe allegedly punched an Aboriginal man’s head, grabbed his hair and slung him to the ground, rendering him unconscious with cuts that needed 16 stitches.

Mr Rolfe then allegedly asked a detective to scratch his face so he could blame the victim to justify his use of force.

Local Court Judge Greg Borchers found Mr Rolfe had lied to conceal his “unlawful” use of force.

Mr Coleridge said Southern Crime Command investigated potential allegations of perjury.

“All of that was occurring against the backdrop of the decline of Mr Rolfe’s mental health and his transition onto medication,” the counsel said.

“Do you accept that if that information had been presented to whoever was responsible for making the decision, there is every chance that Zach Rolfe would not have been deployed to Yuendemu on November 9, 2019?”

Sgt Bauwens: “I can’t say yes or no, it’s a decision which needs to go through due process.”

Mr Coleridge: “A process that didn’t occur in this case?”

Sgt Bauwens: “Not to my knowledge.”

He also told the inquest he did not know about Mr Rolfe’s declining mental health, despite receiving a text in early 2019 saying: “Hey brother, sorry I’ve been slack lately, I’m burnt out as f***”.

Mr Rolfe was diagnosed with depressive disorder and prescribed anti-depressants a month before Mr Walker’s death.

Sgt Bauwens said if he knew he would have escalated the issue and sought help for Mr Rolfe.

The former officer in charge was also shown a racist text message he sent to Mr Rolfe relating to an arrest he had made.

“Mr Rolfe had evidently chased that individual and you said ‘these bush cs aren’t used to people going after them’, do you accept that the word cs is a racist term?” Mr Coleridge asked.

“It’s not something I say, I don’t like it and it’s not who I am, but it’s there,” Sgt Bauwens said.

He accepted that as a senior NT Police officer, he should have “led by example”.

Mr Rolfe is set to testify on Monday, after losing several court challenges to avoid giving evidence including asking coroner Elisabeth Armitage to step aside due to bias.

In documents released late on Wednesday, the former constable’s lawyer foreshadowed claims against self-incrimination on issues of potentially unlawful use of force, illegal drug use and fraudulent conduct.

“It is not expedient for the purposes of justice for Mr Rolfe to be compelled to answer questions,” the lawyer said.

“It cannot be reasonably suggested that the topics identified … could rationally inform the assessment of (the inquest’s core issue), which is specific to the events leading up to the death of Kumanjayi Walker.”

The inquest continues.

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