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About 3,000 people live in the town of Tennant Creek.(ABC News: Jane Bardon, file photo)

Residents of the outback town of Tennant Creek say the “intimidating” enforcement of coronavirus restrictions is jeopardising an already fragile relationship between the community and police.

Key points:

  • Indigenous leaders say some Aboriginal residents of Tennant Creek feel unfairly treated by police during the crisis
  • Human rights group Amnesty International says it is investigating about a dozen complaints
  • NT Police say locals have shown a “reluctance” to follow social-distancing regulations and officers have needed to crack down

Indigenous locals from the Northern Territory town have made complaints to politicians and human rights groups about authorities during the lockdowns.

But police say the town of about 3,000 residents has been a hotspot for breaches of social-distancing restrictions, and a strict enforcement regime has been necessary.

Military were deployed to the town in March to help local authorities enforce social-distancing and travel restrictions, while federal police were sent last month to help man biosecurity checkpoints across the Territory. 

“It just brings back the intervention, the Stolen Generations, the massacres, the colonisation, it’s still raw for us people here,” Tennant Creek traditional owner Jimmy Frank said.

“Suddenly there’s all these officers on your front yard … and it’s just intimidating,” Mr Frank said.

Locals said large groups of police and military had been conducting routine compliance checks, and shared video footage of one of these visits with the ABC.

The video captures at least three military and several police officers at one Tennant Creek residence in April, before they leave without making any arrests.

Twenty-four infringement notices for breaching social-distancing rules have been handed out across the NT, with 14 of those issued to Tennant Creek residents.

“We commenced a period of engagement where we tried to educate the community about the expectation of social distancing,” NT Police Southern District Commander Brad Currie said.

“But unfortunately, in Tennant Creek specifically there was a reluctance for that social distancing to be obeyed.

“We did go through a period of enforcement where a number of those infringements were issued.”

Trust and friendship under threat: leader

Australia’s coronavirus response includes specifically designed protections for Indigenous Australians, who are particularly vulnerable to the disease due to high rates of chronic illness.

The NT shut its borders, banned travel to remote Indigenous communities and restricted indoor gatherings to no more than 10 people.

Jimmy Frank said he hoped the easing of restrictions would lead to better collaboration.(Supplied)

The Federal Government offered assistance to the Territory in the form of Australian Federal Police (AFP) and Australian Defence Force (ADF) officers to help keep coronavirus out of remote communities.

But some traditional owners feel that has led to excessive targeting of Aboriginal people, who had been working to build a better relationship with local police in recent years.

“Building that bridge with community and local police working together, we were doing good,” Jimmy Frank said.

“But with this, the trust and the friendship goes through the door.”

‘Bully-boy attitude’

Amnesty International said it had received about 12 complaints from residents in Tennant Creek, many about the conduct of officers doing coronavirus compliance checks. 

“This is not a way of making it safer, this is the bully-boy attitude of going in and standing over the top of our people,” Amnesty International Indigenous rights adviser Rodney Dillion said.

One complaint made to Amnesty alleges a group of officers, thought to be both police and military, showed up to a property, before some officers entered the house and made residents stand for a headcount.

A separate complainant said a group of authorities showed up to her home to see who was there, before police entered and poured out the residents’ alcohol.

Commander Currie said he could not comment on those specific cases, but if officers believed residents were breaching the town’s strict alcohol laws, they would respond accordingly.  


Traditional owner Norman Frank said Aboriginal people were being criminalised by rules set up to protect them.(Supplied)

In Tennant Creek, alcohol is prohibited in the town camps — homes on the outskirts of town mostly populated by Indigenous residents. 

There is also a banned drinker registry and limitations on the sale of alcohol.

“I am aware of officers taking action against occupants of residences where they have breached the Liquor Act, where [NT police] have either seized or destroyed alcohol that’s consumed on restricted premises,” Commander Currie said.

The ADF is assisting the NT Police in the coronavirus response but is not allowed to enter any local homes.

Commander Currie said there had not been any complaints made to NT Police, and he was not aware of any ADF officers entering any premises.

‘Why don’t we work together?’

Tennant Creek traditional owner Norman Frank said the rules set up to protect his people were instead criminalising them.

“In a way it was good putting up these borders … but what’s happening in our town, it’s not right,” he said.

“The community is just concerned — why are there all these people in town?”

Jimmy Frank said he was hopeful police would take a more collaborative approach with the community as restrictions eased.

“Why aren’t we included to sit at those tables and make those decisions?” he said.

“We need to work in two worlds … why don’t we work together?

The AFP said its officers were focused on biosecurity checks and had not entered any homes in the NT. “Our role is restricted to manning biosecurity checkpoints and border control points at Darwin and Alice Springs airports only,” an AFP statement said.

In a statement, the ADF confirmed it was still providing support at police control points around Tennant Creek, but its role in social-distancing compliance checks ended on May 4.

The ADF is scheduled to stay until June 18 but could leave as early as June 5, as Indigenous councils are pushing the NT Government to lift some of the strict travel restrictions.

Commander Currie said the ADF would continue to help police with compliance checks in other parts of the Territory.

“If people are concerned in relation to the actions of the NT Police and the ADF, I encourage residents to make those complaints to ensure they’re investigated appropriately,” he said.

Other community members in Tennant Creek expressed concern when an ADF officer was spotted assisting police in duties outside a liquor store, but NT Police called the incident “a mistake”.