Police showed a lack of “respect” and “caring” in their interactions with the family of a young Gomoroi man who drowned in a river after running from officers, the New South Wales coroner has said.
Gordon Copeland, 22, drowned in the river Gwydir in the early hours of 10 July 2021. The inquest heard that Copeland went into the water while running from police who were following the car he was in, thinking it had been stolen.
Police called off the search for Copeland after three days but his body was not found until authorities resumed more than three months later, following continued community and family pressure.
Related: Police officer laughs and uses expletive to describe missing Aboriginal man in video shown at inquest
NSW state coroner Theresa O’Sullivan delivered her findings from the inquest into Copelands’ death on Tuesday, noting the importance of understanding the “traumatic history” between police and Aboriginal people, particularly in Moree and near her.
O’Sullivan made six recommendations, including that the NSW police force review its training on First Nations people and the impact of colonization on Indigenous people today.
She also recommended NSW police review their policies and training on communicating with traumatized families, particularly when it comes to Indigenous families and missing persons cases.
O’Sullivan criticized Moree police, saying family members who wanted to report Copeland missing and had vital information should have been treated with respect.
“It is completely inappropriate that Copeland’s family did not receive more urgent and more respectful help,” the coroner said as she delivered her findings.
“The police would probably have a full account that would enable them to put the missing pieces together and accept for themselves that there was enough evidence to justify resuming the search.
O’Sullivan also urged the police to review their training for “critical decision-making” of future and current officers in situations such as river searches and that the New England police district should examine the resources and the search equipment available during search and rescue in rivers.
The coroner noted the lengths the family went to in their efforts to find Copeland, using their “limited resources” to purchase equipment in their search. “They were obviously frustrated that the New South Wales police force would not commit to yet another search,” she told the court.
“Without this strong advocacy, it is doubtful that the third search report would have been made.
“Their commitment to Gordon is a testament to their love.”
During the inquest, family members spoke of how they repeatedly asked for more information and spent hours at the police station the night after Copeland’s disappearance, trying to report him missing.
The family said they were “disgusted” and “heartbroken” at how they were treated, having at one point received a Post-it note with information on where to search the river.
Related: Gordon Copeland’s family brought a Post-it note from police to the search site, the inquest heard
The inquest was also shown body camera video from one officer showing an officer laughing and using expletives during a brief initial search.
Sullivan raised concerns about detective Brad Beddoes who said the family had been treated badly and that during his testimony he appeared to lack “empathy and disrespect”. “I hope that since then he reflects more deeply on what happened that he is able to learn from the interaction and that he will continue to reflect.”
She said the tragedy would have a major impact on local police and she hoped the inquest into Copeland’s death would encourage deeper understanding and learning between the police and Indigenous people.
“I hope the lessons learned here will inspire more efforts to listen deeply to First Nations families and learn their intentions from the mistakes that happen when they don’t.”