‘We should have done better’: NT Police apologise for failures in youth suicide, assault investigations

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Northern Territory police have apologised for “inadequate” investigations into the apparent suicides and possible assaults of three girls in remote Top End communities.

Warning: This story contains details which may be distressing for some readers.

A joint inquest is continuing in Darwin after yesterday hearing rushed and flawed police investigations did not fully establish the circumstances of the girls’ deaths in 2016 and 2017. 

Family members have given permission for the inquest to use the full names of 16-year-old Keturah Cheralyn Mamarika, 15-year-old Layla Leering — referred to by some relatives as Gulum — and 17-year-old Fionica James.

No charges have been laid despite evidence Cheralyn and Layla were sexually assaulted before they died and Fionica had injuries from a possible physical assault.

Assistant Commissioner Nick Anticich told the inquest at the start of his evidence on Thursday that he was apologising on behalf of Northern Territory police. 

“It’s regretful because as a police force we should have done better for the community we serve.”

He said he believed the evidence gathered — “albeit from flawed investigations” — ultimately did not suggest there were third parties involved in the girls’ deaths.

But he agreed investigators had prematurely eliminated the prospect of criminal offending and said evidence to the inquest suggested other offences may have occurred.

‘Turmoil’ in police unit during investigations

The inquest yesterday heard an internal review found investigators spent too little time in the communities after each death — less than 24 hours in one case — closed crime scenes too quickly and struggled to engage with community members and potential witnesses.

A partial copy of the review released to the media on Thursday showed in one case investigators failed to get exhibits tested until prompted by the coroner’s office two years later.

The inquest heard there was little oversight of the investigations by supervisors and management, which Mr Anticich attributed in part to “turmoil” unfolding in the major crime unit at the time, including the departure of multiple senior officers after internal complaints.

Mr Anticich said a major restructure in the force that took effect earlier this year should mean resources were maintained in the investigations units “regardless of other priorities”.

The findings of an independent review into the forensics unit, commissioned after criticisms in previous inquests about the mishandling or destruction of evidence, were not explored in open court.

Mr Anticich said the forensics unit was now at “reasonably full strength” but awaiting the appointment of a new director.

The inquest also heard from representatives from the Territory Families, education and health departments, who all told the court their agencies could have done more to support the teenagers before their deaths.

The inquest continues on Friday.

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