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Ms Dhu was treated inhumanely: WA coroner

AAP logoAAP 15/12/2016 Angie Raphael

A 22-year-old Aboriginal woman in custody was treated inhumanely by police and her death could have been prevented, the West Australian coroner has found, but her family claims justice still has not been served.

Ms Dhu, whose first name is not used for cultural reasons, died two days after being locked up at South Hedland Police Station in August 2014 for unpaid fines totalling $3622, stemming from charges including assaulting police.

Ms Dhu died during her third visit in as many days to the Hedland Health Campus from staphylococcal septicaemia and pneumonia after an infection in her fractured ribs - caused by her partner - spread to her lungs.

Some police testified they thought Ms Dhu was faking illness and was coming down from drugs, while some medical staff also thought she was exaggerating and had behavioural issues.

Coroner Ros Fogliani said on Friday Ms Dhu's death could have been prevented if her illness had been diagnosed earlier and she had been given antibiotics, adding her overall care was below expected standards.

She accepted Ms Dhu did not show signs of an infection the first time she went to hospital, but said the second time errors were made, and there was a missed opportunity to treat her.

Ms Dhu's suffering as she lay close to death in the lock-up was compounded by the unprofessional and inhumane actions of some officers, she said.

Ms Fogliani agreed to release footage showing Ms Dhu's final hours, including police dragging and carrying Ms Dhu's limp body to a police van.

Another clip shows an officer pulling Ms Dhu by the wrist to sit her up before dropping her, causing her to hit her head.

While police did not contribute to Ms Dhu's death, irreversible failings were made, and Ms Fogliani said it was profoundly disturbing to witness the appalling treatment of Ms Dhu on the day she died.

"Ms Dhu was dearly loved by her family and her death has left them heartbroken," she said.

"In her final hours she was unable to have the comfort of the presence of her loved ones, and was in the care of a number of police officers who disregarded her welfare and her right to humane and dignified treatment."

Ms Fogliani made several recommendations, including changes to the law so a warrant authorising imprisonment was no longer an option for unpaid fines, and instead, a magistrate would make the decision.

Ms Fogliani said she hoped her recommendations would prevent similar deaths.

"It is my expectation not to see such treatment of a person held in custody again," she said.

Some people in the packed court room shouted "Racism!" and "Shame on you!" after the coroner finished her remarks.

Outside court, Ms Dhu's grandmother Carol Roe became emotional talking about the two-year wait for answers.

"She's in limbo and we want to put our baby to rest," she said before the findings were handed down.

Afterwards, the family said they were disappointed because no one had been held accountable.

"(I was hoping for) justice and I still haven't got it," Ms Dhu's mother Della Roe said.

WA Police Commissioner Karl O'Callaghan said the images of Ms Dhu's treatment were disturbing and police had obligations to people in custody.

"We are the guardians of their safety, their welfare and, of course, their dignity and I accept that we failed Ms Dhu in this regard," he said.

"She was not treated with the right level of human compassion or dignity."

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