The Yuendumu police shooting: An evening of shouting, silence and anguish
Photo: People on the outside were desperate to know what was happening inside the police station. (ABC News: Hamish Harty)
The first call came just before 8:00pm on Saturday. A former Yuendumu resident rang ABC reporter Steven Schubert to tell him police had shot a young man and community residents couldn't find out what happened.
A call to police confirmed the basic details: a young man had been shot by police and was in a critical condition.
At 8.30pm an NT Police Facebook post said officers were responding to a "critical incident" in Yuendumu: a man had been shot by police, was in a "critical condition", and was receiving medical attention.
The post did not say what time the shooting happened, where the medical treatment was being delivered or if the man had been taken to hospital.
The natural instinct was to call more people in Yuendumu, some of whom had begun gathering outside the community's police station. Surely, they'd have more information.
But those community members and relatives outside the station where the young man had been taken by police said they could not get more information than those of us in towns hundreds of kilometres away.
Family's plea for information met with silence
Those outside the station did know enough to worry them. They knew the 19-year-old, who for cultural reasons is now known as Kumanjayi Walker, had been shot about 7:15pm. Some said they'd seen blood splattered across a mattress and bullet casings on the floor of his home.
They knew Kumanjayi Walker was inside the police station, they knew there were no medical staff in Yuendumu and they knew that getting outside help to their remote community on the edge of the Tanami desert could take hours.
It will take you about three hours to travel to Yuendumu by car from Alice Springs along the Tanami Highway.
A few kilometres away from the community you'll hit a dirt road, before reaching the flat, sprawling outback town, which soon fades back away into desert.
Outside the town's police station witnesses say some family sat in vigil, some prayed, and through a hole in the wall, elders unsuccessfully tried to negotiate access to see the young man and check his condition.
But communication between officers and those on the outside was piecemeal and, according to elder Eddie Robertson, meaningless to those seeking answers.
"When we heard what happened, the police were already on their way to the police station and they locked themselves in there," he said.
"That's when we started to get angry, and wailing, and crying.
"We tried to make them [the police] come and talk to us. They wouldn't come out, they just looked at us from the window. We want to know what happened."
Police locked themselves inside the police station with the 19-year-old and turned off the interior lights.
WARNING: This article contains an image of Kumanjayi Walker, used with the permission of his family.
One of Kumanjayi Walker's cousins, Samara Fernandez Brown, said she sat outside the police station for four hours trying to get answers.
"We were just sitting there, and all we kept asking the constable was can you come out and let us know if he's safe, if he's alive," she said.
The information freeze, police have said, was at least partially motivated by a fear of reprisals from the crowd outside the station.
At 7:30pm, according to the Chief Minister, there was a call for help to health workers in the small community of Yuelamu, an hour's drive from Yuendumu.
The Chief Minister did not specify who made the call.
The Yuendumu clinic was unstaffed that night — it had been evacuated the same day due to safety concerns related to break-ins.
The general manager for primary health in central Australia, David Reeve, has since explained that on the night before the shooting, three staff houses had been broken into while staff were inside.
"At the same time several of our cars had been smashed with rocks and broken into, so our staff were very scared, so we thought it's best in that time to put our staff back into Alice Springs just until things calmed down," Mr Reeves said.
The health workers in Yuelamu set off in an ambulance, but they were 45 kilometres away down a dark unsealed road, and wouldn't arrive for at least an hour.
Police hold out, nurses return and doctors stay grounded
"You're late, you're f***ing late," came a voice from the crowd as an ambulance pulled into the Yuendumu police station about 8:30pm. The NT Health Department said the two health workers who arrived from Yuelamu were later injured when rocks were thrown at their ambulance.
"Rocks went through the window and our staff — these are big boulders — hit our nurses in the head and in the arms, and our nurses were injured on that night," Mr Reeves said.
Concerns over staff safety delayed other medical help arriving from the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS).
A statement from the RFDS said the service received an "initial activation call" at 7:42pm from the Northern Territory Government's Medical Retrieval and Consultation Centre, reporting a patient with a gunshot wound in Yuendumu.
But the RFDS did not immediately leave for Yuendumu, due to an inability to "confirm there was a safe and secure environment for the aircraft/crew to land".
The aeromedical team had not departed for the 50-minute flight when the RFDS was told at 9:00pm to stand down because Kumanjayi Walker had died.
That's more information than the people waiting outside the police station were given, according to Ms Fernandez Brown.
"We went to bed last night praying, thinking there was still a chance," she said on Sunday morning.
"But the whole time he was just dead in the police station."
At 11:00pm police media said they had no further updates.
It was at 6.53am on Sunday — after police reinforcements had arrived in Yuendumu — that police issued a press release saying Kumanjayi Walker had died.
Ms Fernandez Brown says she only heard of her cousin's fate later on Sunday morning, through the media.
"For hours we sat there, and we were waiting, they knew he was dead, and they didn't tell us," she said.
NT Police Deputy Commissioner Michael White has said concerns about reprisals and safety were factors in the information freeze.
"Of course that was a consideration," he confirmed.
"We were working with the community as best we could at the time."
Some might argue the police's rationale was fair — what could be gained from telling a crowd of a hundred people adjudged to be potentially hostile what we now know? That Kumanjayi Walker had been shot in his own home. That police had fired three bullets, and those same police were now locked away in isolation with the body.
But Eddie Robertson says it was incumbent on police to act honestly and in good faith towards Kumanjayi Walker's family, to adhere to a basic decency.
"We were very upset … if they were human beings they would have come and told us what really happened," he said.
Residents said while there was anger outside the police station, there was also calm.
"We went to the police station and sat … peacefully, no protest, we were just sitting there, and all we kept asking the constable was can you come out and let us know if he's safe, if he's alive," said Ms Fernandez Brown.
Whether shutting down communication with the community was part of a by-the-book response to a critical incident or based on the officers' own judgement, NT police have not said.
"It's a challenging environment that we're in, it's a remote community many hours away from support within the timeframe of it [Kumanjayi Walker's death] occurring," said Deputy Commissioner White on Sunday.
"Making sure that the community was safe, and our members were safe … it took some time to notify them."
Later, NT Police would allege that prior to the shooting Kumanjayi Walker "stabbed" a police officer with an "edged" weapon, but police would not specify what he stabbed the officer with.
For some in Yuendumu such as elder Harry Nelson, the information freeze in the aftermath of that event has shattered trust in the force.
"The trust in the police is not with us anymore," he said.
"All I want is from us, the community, to say they can shut the police station down."