Here’s What Happened When A Remote Community Got Their First Indigenous-Run Police Station

"Hopefully it might inform and influence change in policies in states other than WA."

Revis Ryder, Daisy Ward and Wendy Kelly in Warakurna.

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Cornel Ozies’ most recent brush with the law happened last year, in Sydney’s inner-west.

He didn’t do anything wrong — he just happened to be an Aboriginal man walking down the street of his predominantly white suburb. In this instance he was stopped by three police officers and questioned for forty minutes — but it wasn’t the first time Cornel has felt a target on his back.

That target has helped form a deep mistrust of police, despite the fact that his brother, grandfather, stepmother and several uncles have worked for the force.

“People go, ‘shouldn’t that mean you trust the police?’” he told Junkee.

“I say ‘well it’s not the individual police person or the officer that I don’t trust, it’s the institution that allows this stuff to happen that I don’t trust.’”

That institution has been under the spotlight this week, with protests against police brutality and Indigenous deaths in custody taking place across the country over the weekend.

More than 400 Indigenous Australians have died in police custody since the 1991 royal commission — over the weekend that number went up yet again, after the death of a 40-year-old man near Perth on Saturday.

One of those people was more than a statistic to Cornel. He was a family member.

Cornel’s experiences help explain why his latest project has been so close to his heart. Last year he spent time in the isolated community of Warakurna, where he directed a documentary on Western Australia’s first Indigenous-run police station.

‘Our Law’ Shows What Police Relations Could Be

That documentary, Our Law, is now a finalist for the Sydney Film Festival’s Documentary Australia Foundation Award.

Our Law follows Brevet Senior Sergeant Revis Ryder and Brevet Sergeant Wendy Kelly, and looks at how they have used cultural ties to rebuild trust in the remote Aboriginal community where they’re stationed.

Before this, there was widespread fear and distrust of the police amongst locals — something that’s not unusual in remote Aboriginal communities. But manning the station with Aboriginal officers has been a game changer for the area,  with the improved relationship between police and the community leading to less crime and less arrests.

Cornel hopes the Warakurna example will spread to other areas, and show how a little bit of cultural respect can go a long way.

“The beauty of this documentary is it’s showing a possible way to mend that trust, and also a way forward in terms of strengthening the relationship between Indigenous communities and police,” he said.

“We had to get it right because it’s an important story to tell and we didn’t want it to just feel like a police PR piece. We wanted to show that no, the reason why it’s working is because the community is involved in the process as well.”

“Hopefully it might inform and influence change in policies in states other than WA.”

Warakurna Police Brevet Senior Sergeant Revis Ryder and Brevet Sergeant Wendy Kelly, with Ngaanyatjarra elder Daisy Ward. Picture supplied by Original Spin.

Neither Ryder nor Kelly are Warakurna locals, so part of the documentary follows them as they try to learn more about the local Ngaanyatjarra culture and their language.

That communication has not only helped them diffuse tense situations in a place where English is sometimes the second or third language — it’s also a sign of respect.

The strength of that respect is particularly evident in one scene, where Ngaanyatjarra elder Daisy Ward is shown making some bush medicine for Snr Sgt Ryder.

“For the police that (were) coming here before Revis, they’d just only go out to the communities just to arrest people,” she said.

“We do these things for Revis and staff out here … because he came and gave so much, and in return we’re giving something back to him to make him better so he can work more, help us more.”

The importance of having a good relationship with the community was made even more obvious on their second day of filming — when they heard that Aboriginal woman Joyce Clarke had been shot dead by police in Geraldton.

The incident sparked anger that police drew their weapons instead of deploying a non-lethal weapon, after responding to reports of a woman with a knife. The police officer involved has since been charged with murder, the first on-duty officer to be charged with murder in WA for 93 years.

After hearing the news the crew temporarily stopped filming to give everyone time to process what had happened.

“That was the moment we realised how important the doco was,” Cornel said.

“If we can bring that respect, that understanding and education through this doco to a wider audience, then maybe in future incidents like that might not happen.”

“Just a little bit of respect goes a long way.”

Audiences can watch Our Law on NITV on Karla Grant Presents on Monday 22 June at 8.30pm or purchase tickets to a sneak peek virtual screening at Sydney Film Festival, running online from 10 — 21 June 2020.