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  • Writer's pictureJack Latimore

'Cowboy stuff with no rules': Zachary Rolfe's long week in the witness box at the inquest into the death of Kumanjayi Walker

“We’re here to grab [Kumanjayi] up”


That was the first introduction of Constable Zachary Rolfe into the lives of the Yuendumu community members outside of house 511 on a Saturday evening in a remote central Australian Aboriginal town over four hours drive northwest of Alice Springs four years ago.


What followed in the minutes after that announcement, which resulted in the shooting death of a young Walpiri man who would come to be known as Kumanjayi Walker, was interrogated in the Northern Territory coronial court this week with Rolfe seated in the witness box.


What emerged over five days of his testimony was an alarming insight into the policing methods of officers on the ground in central Australia at the time, specifically their viewpoints on the job, station culture and professional standards. The complex issues and cultural sensitivities that arise in policing largely Indigenous communities were also cast in vivid light over the marathon examination, as was the disposition and attitude of Rolfe.




The goal was to arrest Kumanjayi Walker and transport him back to Alice Springs and “provide a local presence of armed police to uphold law and order in the community and provide support to local members”, the coroner Elisabeth Armitage heard.


The township of Yuendumu was in Sorry Business, a period of highly charged emotions in any Indigenous community. Walker, 19, who had been eluding police arrest, was characterised by Alice Springs police and Rolfe personally as a “high-risk offender... Extremely violent who was willing to use potentially lethal weapons against police,” was present in the community.


A regional unit known as the Immediate Response Team (IRT), containing Rolfe and four other officers, was deployed to Yuendumu from Alice Springs. The IRT team was not full-time and would get called up from general duties. Members had received specialist training for high-risk jobs, including close-quarters combat.


“It’s a sweet gig, just get to do cowboy stuff with no rules,” Rolfe explained to a former army mate in a text message provided in evidence to the coronial inquest.


Rolfe arrived at the local police station ahead of other members of the IRT and met with Yuendumu officer-in-charge, Sergeant Julie Frost, who had made the support request, the inquest heard.


According to evidence previously heard by Coroner Armitage, Frost had devised and distributed via email an arrest plan that involved working with members of Walker’s family to safely detain him at 5am the next morning. However, after Rolfe learnt that Frost did not know where Walker would be at 5am, he told the inquest this week that he “took a leadership role”, advising his superior officer how the IRT would go about apprehending Walker.


“You assumed, didn’t you, that you had more tactical experience and skill than Sergeant Frost?” Counsel assisting the coroner, Dr Peggy Dwyer SC asked Rolfe on Wednesday.


“Yes.”


“So you took charge of that briefing, did you? In your words, “The absence of other leadership, or a leadership vacuum” I think you said?”


“No, I believe at that point I’ve had the discussion with Julie Frost and informed her how IRT would usually go about business in this scenario. And she agreed that that was a good way in which to handle this situation,” Rolfe responded.


The tactical approach suggested by Rolfe involved introducing the IRT team to community and seeking to obtain their cooperation in acquiring additional intelligence on the whereabouts of Walker.


CCTV footage taken from inside the Yuendumu police station at around 7pm shows the bulk of the IRT team members – Constable Kirstenfeldt, Senior Constable Eberl and Senior Constable Hawkings and Rolfe – heading out into the community brandishing a map of select houses and high-powered tactical assault rifles.


“You would introduce yourself, first let the community know who you were, and seek to obtain their cooperation, while you were walking around the community with one person carrying a long-arm and the other a bean-bag shotgun. Is that what you explained to Sergeant Frost?” Dwyer asked the witness.


Rolfe responded that he did not consider Dwyer’s point at the time.


After visiting the first house identified on the map provided in Frost’s original arrest plan, and entering the premises without explicit permission from the resident Eddie Robertson, and with Rolfe “releasing the retention device on [his] Glock” sidearm, the heavily armed group of constables drive to a nearby street containing “house 511”, according to evidence heard.


Numerous police officers from commanders to assistant commissioners, including Senior Sergeant Meacham King, provided evidence to the inquest after watching body-worn video of the search of Robertson’s home stating that what Rolfe and the now disbanded IRT did was “not gathering intel”.


On Monday, Rolfe named King among NT police members having been present at an annual closed-invite social event hosted by the elite Tactical Response Group (TRG) in which a “coon of the year award” was presented. Rolfe’s alleged award was for the police officer “exhibiting the most coon-like behaviour”. Under questioning, Rolfe conceded that the allegation was based on hearsay evidence.


In a statement provided to the inquest on Thursday, King and other senior-ranking NT Police officers uniformly rejected the allegations.  The TRG issued a number of mock awards given to members at the end of the year during an annual fancy dress event, they said. The one likely alluded to by Rolfe was the in-house award known as the Nugeda prize, presented to a recipient for “outstanding lack of excellence in either hygiene or behaviour”.


The actual award was a mounted wooden club seized in a dispute between Aboriginal clans after a riot elsewhere in the territory, some of the senior-ranking officers statements clarified. The statements also noted that the TRG were commonly mocked in the Top End as “just good at lifting heavy things” and as being cave men. The unit’s HQ in Darwin was likewise labelled The Cave, some of the statements added.


The name of the prize was a reference to the sound associated with Neanderthals, King explained, but had been changed in 2022 to the “Voldemort award” after an internal review.


Also interrogated across the week were over half a dozen complaints and internal reviews against Rolfe in the years and months leading up to November 2019 for alleged incidents of excessive use of force. The inquiry was provided with police body-worn camera footage of some of the alleged incidents.


In one of the videos referred to as the Araluen Park video, Rolfe violently pushes two elderly inebriated Aboriginal men to the ground of a park in Alice Springs, and refuses to allow them to stand to answer questions from the police officers attending. According to evidence heard at the inquest, one of the elderly men required urgent medical attention for heart-related complications after the incident.


The coroner also heard how that video footage and numerous others were often copied by Rolfe from his body-worn camera using his personal telephone and then shared with colleagues in the Alice Springs station Muster room, and sent in text and social media messages to friends.


The court also heard that for other incidents in which he was investigated for excessive force complaints, Rolfe and other general duties Alice Springs police routinely turned off their body-worn cameras in deliberate defiance of a standing order from police command.

Despite the repeated complaints, there were never any findings made against Rolfe and he and others present at these incidents only ever received “remedial advice” from their superiors.


In a testimony oftentimes loaded with machismo and hubris, an aggressive (assertive) picture emerged of Rolfe. He repeatedly advised counsel assisting the coroner on best practices for their inquiries. In the many text messages provided to the inquest it became clear he viewed himself as exceptional to “normal people” and “ahead of the pack”.


Some of those text messages revealed his appetite for violence. In a text message from August 2017, while struggling to adjust to his posting to Alice Springs, Rolfe messages his mother that he was “gonna go try and get in a fight”. Questioned about the meaning of a 2019 text message sent to Rolfe by a friend that read, “When violence soothes your soul, rather than a hug, lol boom”, Rolfe agreed that he found violence therapeutic . Later the same day Rolfe texted a woman, writing: “I’m back. I just had a really good sparring session with Simmo. Needed some violence to re-centre my head.”


Later in the week, under questioning from Phillip Boulten SC, who was representing the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency,  Rolfe agreed that the vast majority of serving Northern Territory Police thought, and continued to think “in private”, that his policing methods during his career in the NT police were “above average”.


As a graduating police cadet, Rolfe was dux of his cohort, and entering the force he was eager for action and ambitious for career advancement, the coroner heard. He once told an interviewer the reason he wanted to be stationed in Alice Springs was “to get the most experience in the quickest format”.


In early March 2018, aged 25 or 26-years old, and a couple of years into his policing career, Rolfe completed an army special forces entry test for the SAS, but pulled out of the next test period with a fractured wrist. He “pulled the application” the inquest heard on Monday, due to having to wait for the next year’s test period, but was invited by the ADF to reapply. Ultimately, he ended up “putting that energy back into IRT” instead of looking for an alternative career path.


Under further questioning from Boulten on Thursday, Rolfe agreed that life in central Australia is complex with challenges that people in suburban Australia don’t face.

Boulten examined Rolfe’s extent of cultural awareness asking him if he knew who the traditional owners of Mwpartne/Alice Springs are. Rolfe declined to respond because he was worried he would pronounce Arrente incorrectly.


Responding to a series of questions, Rolfe admitted to not understanding the concept of Country, Songlines, Indigenous kinship systems and connections, and funerary rites like Sorry Business. Rolfe said he never received any cultural awareness training before his posting to Alice Springs police station.


The coronial inquest also heard again how Rolfe and another IRT member dragged Walker out of house 511 by the arms and drove the fatally wounded young Walpiri man to the Yuendumu police station, where Walker struggled for about 60 minutes before dying. During that period, the IRT squad were advised to perform CPR on Walker by the emergency medical service they radioed. No member of the IRT team did so, the inquest heard.


Outside the police station, as word of the police shooting spread across Yuendumu, the angry and frustrated community gathered in front of the station and began throwing rocks onto its roof. Inside the station, Walker called out for his mother. Walkers requests were refused.


“The option of allowing his family into the station never passed my mind,” Rolfe told the coroner on Friday. “So in lieu of that, all I did was give him – provide him the highest level of comfort that I could provide.”


“[Do] you accept that that was hardly a humane response to his situation at that point?” Boulten asked.


“I disagree. I believe our response was extremely humane,” Rolfe responded.


In a criminal trial that ended in early 2022, Rolfe was found not guilty of murdering Kumanjayi Walker after shooting him three times in house 511 on the night of November 9, 2019. In early 2023, Rolfe was fired from the NT Police for “serious breaches of discipline during [his] policing career”.


The coronial inquest continues.


01/03/24

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