Rebecca Maher was found dead in a cell at Maitland police station on July 19. Photo: SuppliedWoman found dead in Maitland police station
Nanjing Night Net

UPDATE, 5.50pm:

An Aboriginal woman who died in police custody was locked upforwalking home drunk, her family said as they accused police of failing to follow proper protocols.

Rebecca Maher, 36, was found dead in a cell at Maitland police station at 6am on July 19, marking the first Aboriginal death in NSW police custodysince 2000.

She was picked up by police at 12.45am that morning on the side of a road in the Hunter Valley town of Cessnock after witnesses reported her wandering on the road in a heavily intoxicated state.

The mother of four, aWiradjuriwoman,was placed in a cell alone around 1am and checked on at 6am.

A cause of death hasn’t been determined but Fairfax Media understands she had vomit around her mouth.

The Aboriginal Legal Service NSW/ACThasaccused policeof failing to follow legal protocols that requirethem to notify the ALS as soon as an Indigenous person is taken into custody.

It was only notified of Ms Maher’s death on August 12, 24 days later.

“We’re very concerned there’s been a procedural failure this time, and that we were not notified of Ms Maher’s detainment,” ALS chief executive Gary Oliver said.

“If the [notification system]had been used by police when they detained Ms Maher, there may have been a different outcome.”

Family friend andtraditional owner Kathy Malera-Bandjalansaid Ms Maher’s mother and siblings were devastated and demandinganswers.

They were only notified of Ms Maher’s death at 12.30pm on July 19, she said.

“How do you take someone into custody who’s legally done nothing wrong, then detain themin a cell then they’re deadin four hours?” she said.”Rebecca’s death is not going to be in vain.”

The events leading up to Ms Maher’s detention and the reasons for her detention are under close scrutiny.

Police releasedastatementon July 19 saying “police located and detained a 36-year-old woman who appeared intoxicated, walking along Wollombi Road, Cessnock”.

In asecond statement, on July 25, police said she was taken to the station because “police had concerns for her welfare”.

In thatstatement, police appealed for witnesses who saw Ms Maher on Wollombi Road, including the occupants of a blue Commodore andan anonymous man who called police.

Ms Malera-Bandjalan read out a statement to a rally in Sydney earlier this month, questioning why Ms Maher was detained with no supervision.

“Without being charged with any crime, Rebecca was taken into police custody as she walked down a street,” the statement said.

“Police allege that she was intoxicated, but have given her family no other reason as to why Rebecca was detained.”

Following the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody in 1991, a recommendation was made to develop a protocol whereby an Aboriginal legal service is notified whenever an Aboriginal person is arrested or detained.

This requirement was enshrined in law in theNSW Law Enforcement (Powers and Responsibilities) Regulation.

The ALS set up theCustody Notification Servicein 2000, a 24/7 phone line, to meet this need.

Mr Oliver saidthe CNS allowsa lawyer to give the detainee legal advice and check they’re OK.

“Sometimes they’re not OK, and the police and the lawyer organise for a health check, an ambulance, medicationor whatever assistance is required to ensure the person in custody is safe.

“Even if a person is seen to be intoxicated, the police still ring us and let us know they’ve got a person in custody.”

It’s not yet clear if police knew that Ms Maher was Indigenous however she has previous criminal convictions so would have appeared in internal systems.

NSW Police and Minister for PoliceTroy Grant declined to comment, saying it is a matter for the Coroner.

Minister for Aboriginal Affairs Leslie Williams offered her “sincere condolences” to the family and said it was a matter for the police.

Ms Maher’s family granted Fairfax Media permission to publish her name and photo.

EARLIER:

The Aboriginal Legal Service has confirmed that a woman who died in a Maitland police station holding cell, was Aboriginal woman Rebecca Maher.

This was the first Aboriginal death in NSW police custody since 2000.

Ms Maher, 36, was picked up by police in Cessnock, and taken to Maitland police station around 12.45am on July 19.

Fairfax Media understandswitnesses had called police toreport the woman highly intoxicated on the roadside.

She was placed in the cells at the station. When officers checked on her at 6am she was dead.

The Aboriginal Legal Service NSW/ACT have accused the police of failing to follow legal protocolsrequiring them to notify the ALS as soon as an indigenous person is taken into custody.

They were only notified of Ms Maher’s death in custody on August 12, 24 days later.

The events leading up to Ms Maher’s detention and the reasons for her detention are under close scrutiny.

Police releasedastatementon July 19 saying that “police located and detained a 36-year-old woman who appeared intoxicated, walking alongWollombiRoad, Cessnock”.

In asecond statementon July 25, police added that she was taken to the police station because “police had concerns for her welfare”.

In that statement, police appealed for witnesses who saw Ms Maher onWollombiRoad including the occupants of a blue Commodore andan anonymous man who called police.

Initial media reports saidthere wasno evidence of foul play or self-harm inside the cell. An autopsy would determine whether her intoxicated state contributed to her death, the Newcastle Herald reported.

At a rally held in Cessnock earlier this month, Ms Maher’s family read out a statement saying that they were only told of the mother-of-four’s death at about 12.30pm on July 19.

They claimed that Ms Maher didn’t commit any crime and should not have been detained.

“Without being charged with any crime Rebecca was taken into police custody as she walked down a street in the NSW rural town of Cessnock,” the statement said.

“Police allege that she was intoxicated, but have given her family no other reason as to why Rebecca was detained.

“Very little information has been given to Rebecca’s family about the circumstances of her death. All that the family has been told is that Rebecca was taken into police custody and without being charged with anything was put into a cell at an early hour (approximately 1am) on Tuesday, 19th July, 2016.

“According to the limited information given to her mother, police entered the cell at 6am Tuesday morning to find Rebecca deceased. They contacted Rebecca’s mother with this news some 5-6 hours later at around 12.30pm.”

Following the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody in 1991, a recommendation was made to develop a protocol whereby an Aboriginal legal service is notified whenever an Aboriginal person is arrested or detained.

This requirement was enshrined in law in theNSW Law Enforcement (Powers and Responsibilities) Regulation.

The ALS set up theCustody Notification Servicein 2000, a 24/7 phone line, to meet this need.

“We’re very concerned there’s been a procedural failure this time, and that we were not notified of Ms Maher’s detainment,” saidALS chief executive Gary Oliver.

“If the CNS had been used by police when they detained Ms Maher, there may have been a different outcome.”

He said the CNS allowsa lawyer to give the detainee legal advice and check they’re okay.

“Sometimes they’re not OK, and the police and the lawyer organise for a health check, an ambulance, medication, or whatever assistance is required to ensure the person in custody is safe.

“Even if a person is seen to be intoxicated, the police still ring us and let us know they’ve got a person in custody, and NSW police ensure that person in custody is made safe.”

It’s not yet clear how Ms Maher died in custody or why she was detained.

NSW Police have been contacted for comment.

First appeared in SMH