A Brisbane watch house officer who was suspended after the death of First Nations woman Shiralee Tilberoo has admitted during an inquest that she did not check whether she was breathing or shine a torch into the darkened cell on nine occasions.
The Birri Gubba woman – also known as Aunty Sherry – died of a brain aneurysm in Brisbane City watch house in the early hours of the morning on 10 September 2020.
A joint inquest is examining Tilberoo’s death and that of Vlasta Wylucki, who died in the Southport watch house in 2018.
The inquest has heard Tilberoo, 49, had been suffering from heroin withdrawal and was sick, shaking, vomiting and refusing to eat.
On Wednesday officer Debra Haigh, who had been working the overnight shift when Tilberoo died, gave evidence to the inquest. Haigh had been suspended for six months, and then moved to another department for 10 months, after the death.
She told the inquest she did not have “any concerns” about Tilberoo at the time, but now understands she should have stood in front of her cell for longer “to see if she had any movement”.
Haigh said she was not aware if she had received a March 2018 email from police inspector Marcus Cryer informing staff they must check whether prisoners are breathing during cell inspections.
The inquest heard guidelines telling staff to perform physical checks to ensure prisoners were breathing were also on the wall behind where Haigh was standing in the watch house.
“It wasn’t laziness, I did my cell checks every hour,” Haigh said of the night.
“Maybe my head wasn’t in the right space. It was my second night in a row put in the wing.”
Haigh said the lights were dimmed during her shift and it had been “quite dark”, with “only a glow into the cells”.
She told the inquest she had accidentally left her personal torch at home and did not use the torches at the watch house to check on detainees as they were “cheap” and often “did not work”.
The inquest heard Tilberoo had a blanket covering her head and was lying on her left side, facing her cellmate, making it difficult to see whether her chest was rising and falling.
Haigh said staff who were not “the favourites” were often “shafted” into the wing of the watch house, despite concerns raised by officers.
“It doesn’t really matter if you raise it. Sometimes you’ll spend your night shifts in the wing,” she said.
“You’re isolated from everyone, you’re in the dark, you’re just trying to make sure everyone’s OK, that no one has committed suicide or are beating each other up.”
Haigh has since returned to the watch house and told the inquest she has made changes in how she undertakes physical checks.
“I stand in front of cells longer. If they cover their heads, I’ll put the torch in their face, if that doesn’t work I tap on the glass louder,” she said.
She said the torches at the watch house had also changed, describing the new ones as “excellent”.
The inquest also heard from Dr Allan Pascoe, an addiction psychiatrist and addiction medicine specialist, who said he believed Tilberoo’s opioid withdrawal symptoms were “appropriately managed” by nurses at the watch house.
He said nothing would have caused or accelerated her death in regard to her withdrawal symptoms.
The inquest continues on Friday.