By ISAAC NELLIST
The family of a 16-year-old Aboriginal boy who was killed in a collision with an unmarked police car have called for an independent investigation into his death.
Thungutti teenager Jai Wright was riding a motorbike in Alexandria on 19 February when an unmarked police car hit him. He died the next day in hospital from his head injuries.
How exactly the deadly crash happened remains unclear as New South Wales Police has given the family two contradictory stories.
A senior officer told the family that officers were pursuing the teenager on the motor bike, and then stopped the chase. Later, an unmarked police car pulled out in front of Jai and he collided with the car.
The second version was that there was “no pursuit”: a police car was parked on the side of the road when Jai hit a bump and lost control, crashing the motor bike into the parked police car.
The first version would mean the incident would have to be investigated as a death in custody. The second version could rule out a coronial inquest.
Lachlan Wright, Jai’s father, said the police had given the family two different accounts of what happened — showing disrespect to the family.
“We have been given inconsistent information by police as to what caused Jai’s death,” he said on 21 February. “Any parent wants to know how their little boy has died. That is why we are calling for an entirely independent inquiry away from the police.”
Jai was described by his family as a “proud Aboriginal boy” who “everyone wanted to be around”. He was about to start an apprenticeship to become an electrician.
Jai died less than a week after the family of TJ Hickey led a memorial march to Redfern Police Station to mark 18 years since TJ was killed in Waterloo as part of a police chase. No police officer has been charged, and TJ’s family is also calling for an independent investigation after a rushed coronial inquest cleared police of any wrongdoing despite omissions of evidence.
There are also parallels with the 2016 death of 14-year-old Elijah Doughty in Kalgoorlie, Western Australia, who was hit and killed by a ute-driver who suspected him of stealing a bike. Elijah was flung from the bike and the ute continued driving over him, killing him instantly. The driver was found not guilty of manslaughter.
Redfern Legal Centre (RLC) on February 21 called for NSW Police to release its policy on safe driving that it said is “shrouded in secrecy”.
Samantha Lee, RLC police accountability officer, said police pursuit protocols and its Safe Driving Policy remains “hidden from public scrutiny” despite a spike in deaths following police pursuits.
“Police motor vehicle incidents often occur in the context of police pursuits, and continue to have horrific consequences, impacting many including young people, innocent bystanders, ambulance services, witnesses and even police themselves,” she said.
“NSW State Coroners have made numerous recommendations about safe driving … but we still don’t know if NSW Police have acted on these recommendations,” she said.
RLC outlined the NSW Coroner’s Court’s 10 recommendations made between 2016–2021, and said they must be immediately implemented.
The Coroner recommended in 2016 that “the NSW Police Force Safe Driving Policy component dealing with police pursuits be reviewed, in the light of Australian and international experience and research” and that there is an “ an unequivocal definition of the term ‘termination’ as it relates to pursuits”.
Since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody brought down its 339 recommendations to save lives in 1991, more than 500 people have died in custody.
The Aboriginal Legal Service has echoed the Wright family’s call for an independent inquiry.
“To be an independent investigation, you can’t be a police officer. You can’t be a police officer investigating other police officers,” Lachlan Wright said. “That’s my kid. I am never going to see him again. I just want to know the truth.”