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Indigenous app helping WA police close gap

New cultural protocols are being rolled out to police in Western Australia, building on the successful use of technology allowing Aboriginal people to hear information in their own language.

Town-specific cultural knowledge will be delivered to every serving officer with protocols co-designed with Aboriginal community leaders.

It follows the take-up of interpreting app Yarning, that allows officers to play important information in Aboriginal languages including rights in custody and COVID-19 updates.

Aboriginal Affairs Division Superintendent Tony Colfer says feedback from remote areas has been particularly positive.

“You clearly see that demeanour change,” he told AAP.

“They feel we’re thinking of them and we’re providing that message in their language so they understand and it’s as fair as possible.

“It shows respect and trust and fairness.”

Developed by global technology firm Modis, the app was delivered to officers last year after being trialled in the Pilbara, with the help of Aboriginal Interpreting WA which workshopped messages.

It helps Aboriginal people who do not speak English as a first language to be fully aware of their custody rights, including to an interpreter.

Aboriginal Interpreting WA has seen a 25 per cent increase in requests for assistance from people in custody since the app launch.

Messages can be added as needed.

More than 780 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages are identified nationally by First Languages Australia, with 20 used daily by fluent speakers.

Aboriginal Interpreting WA chief Deanne Lightfoot says people often revert to their first language in times of distress or trauma.

“Because an Aboriginal person had been heard to use a form of English in day-to-day interactions, there has sometimes been an assumption that their English is ‘good enough’ for every interaction,” she told AAP.

“The app is definitely a step in the right direction … in terms of ensuring everyone’s right to be understood is honoured and addressed.”

Modis Australia senior vice-president Peter Hawkins says the app has made a real difference given how straight forward it was to develop.

“(Often) it was the first time someone in an Aboriginal community had had an interaction with a government official in their own language, which blew me away,” he said.

“For a project that didn’t take a huge amount of time and money, the impact is significant.”

Another app designed to give officers – particularly cadets – specific cultural knowledge about communities is in development.

“When an officer is going into a location they know which elders to go and speak to, they know the history of the town, they know about funerals,” Supt Colfer said.

“So when you’re going into, say, the Kimberley, we have one of the lawmen and one of the elders talking about what they expect out of police – ‘you need to come and be part of the community and work with us’.”

WA has the nation’s highest Aboriginal incarceration rate and the communication gap has had a devastating impact.

Gene Gibson, a cognitively-impaired man who spoke little English and couldn’t understand the legal process, spent almost five years in jail after being wrongly convicted over the death of Josh Warneke.

He pleaded guilty to manslaughter in 2014 after a series of flawed police interviews were deemed inadmissible, leading prosecutors to drop a murder charge.

Mr Gibson walked free in 2017 after the conviction was successfully appealed and was paid $1.5 million in state government compensation.

WA’s corruption watchdog recommended police review how they cautioned those who did not speak English as a first language.

Former Police Commissioner Chris Dawson apologised to Aboriginal people in 2018 for mistreatment by the force.

In recent years a dedicated Aboriginal Affairs division was created, police developed a Reconciliation Action Plan and have sought to hire more Indigenous officers.

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