‘I had not one friend in the job to debrief with’: life as an Indigenous police officer

Jenny Valentish
·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Dave Hunt/AAP</span>
Photograph: Dave Hunt/AAP

Back when she was a police officer, Veronica Gorrie would come home after a bad shift, break out the Pine O Cleen and scrub her way from the front door all through the house. She reckoned the disinfectant’s stringent scent helped override the smell of death and despair that hung about her uniform like a pall, but the attention to cleanliness was also a product of the OCD and PTSD she’d developed through the job. She once blew up the TV by scrubbing the reverse side of the screen.

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Pre-sales for Gorrie’s memoir, Black and Blue: A Memoir of Racism and Resilience, were greater than for any other title in the history of its Melbourne-based publishing house, Scribe. The book details her time as one of the few Aboriginal members of the police force, and the additional stress experienced by those who are targeted by tokenistic recruitment drives and heralded as “good role models”, while expected to tolerate racist remarks and racial profiling on the job.

The first book launch Gorrie ever attended was her own. She talks to Guardian Australia the day after, from a hotel room full of flowers. The earliest draft of Black and Blue was written when she was medically discharged in 2011, having spent 10 years working for Victoria police and then Queensland police.

“By joining the police I wanted to break the cycle of fear of police that had been instilled in me as a very young child, and that my father felt and my grandmother felt as someone who was stolen by welfare and police when she was eight years old,” Gorrie says. “I didn’t want my children to feel that fear.”

Gorrie lost a lot of friends and family by signing up. In the past three weeks, she points out, there have been four Aboriginal deaths in custody, and no police officer has ever been held accountable.

“We have grave concerns that when we leave the house, if we are intercepted by police – and the likelihood is very high – we don’t know if we’re going to be the next death in custody. That’s the sad reality of our lives.”

The day after our interview, a fifth person dies: a 45-year-old Indigenous man held at Perth’s Casuarina prison.

The conflict Gorrie felt in joining the police – she recalls witnessing excessive force and considers herself complicit for not speaking up “earlier and louder” – runs through the book in other ways, too. A key struggle is that Gorrie is telling her own story, which includes being on the receiving end of domestic violence, but she has no wish to perpetuate stereotypes of family violence within Aboriginal communities.

Since the predominantly white Queensland police force has had 84 of its officers accused of domestic violence over a five-year period, it would take a determinedly blinkered reader to see this as an Aboriginal problem. In Black and Blue, Gorrie recalls going on “drive-bys” with police officers who had split up with their partners and wanted to stake out their ex’s house. “It’s stalking,” she says simply.

There was much that Gorrie felt obliged to keep quiet about during her time in the force, including the poverty that she was still living in as a single mother. She would get loans from Cash Converters to last her until payday, and food vouchers from St Vincent de Paul and the Salvation Army.

Still, her commitment to the job was such that she had the highest arrest rate for a female police officer in her region. And her diligence even extended to herself – she once used the police computer to run a background check on the woman her husband left her for, and then, consumed by guilt, put in a complaint about herself, which resulted in a year being lopped off her record and a six-month pay cut. That kind of stringent honesty is evident throughout the book, as Gorrie recalls incidents in which her empathy failed her.

But Gorrie found few avenues for help. Going to see health and safety representatives and a police psychologist, she says, almost guarantees that other cops will find out about it. “Then you’re a laughing stock, a weak person.”

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“I had not one friend in the job to debrief with, it was so hard,” she says. “You know you have workmates and you go out for drinks and have barbies and that? I had no one. It’s really hard for Aboriginals to work in white organisations. It’s not culturally safe for us.”

Gorrie recalls waking her oldest child, Nayuka, in the early hours of the morning during her time in the police. “I was a single parent so I had nobody to talk to. I used to go to Nayuka’s room and cry, telling them about the fatals, the suicides, the shitty jobs. That I regret, because I exposed my children to a lot.”

Now a writer, performer and activist, Nayuka Gorrie wrote in the Guardian in 2018: “The state and its mechanisms, such as the police, serve as a means to iron out any kinks in the system. When you are black, you are one of those kinks.”

At the Melbourne launch of her book, Gorrie’s three children were all in attendance. Gorrie had planned what she was going to read and who she would thank, but when the time came, broke down in tears. Only one of her kids, Nayuka, had felt ready to read the book, but then all three of them went up to the mic and took their turns reading out loud.

“I couldn’t speak,” Gorrie says. “Everyone was bloody crying. That’s just the spirit. That’s the family network and that’s who we are. We’re there for each other.”

Black and Blue: A Memoir of Racism and Resilience by Veronica Gorrie is out now through Scribe