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Police Trackers - an article extract

The following material is from the draft manuscript written and supplied by NT Police Superintendent Tony Fuller

A Narrative of Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islanders Service in the Northern Territory Police Force 1870-2009

According to the Australian Governments Culture and recreation Portal on the internet the first recorded use of Aboriginal trackers in Australia took place in 1834 in Western Australia, near Fremantle, when two trackers, Mogo and Mollydobbin tracked a missing five-year-old boy for more than ten hours in very rough country. [1] In Australia many police forces established unofficial relationships with Aboriginal trackers. Some of the most famous uses of trackers include the tracking of bushranger Ned Kelly in 1878 and 1880 and in the Northern Territory their use in the infamous cases of Azaria Chamberlain and Peter Falconio. Yuendumu man Teddy Egan is one such well known tracker. In 1967, he assisted in the capture of an escaped murder suspect after two police officers were wounded in the pursuit[2]. In 2000, he helped Northern Territory police to recapture an escaped prisoner. Egan says that tracking humans is much easier than tracking animals, because 'people make too much mess.' He was also one of four trackers used by Barrow Creek police to try to find missing English tourist Peter Falconio. [3] Others famous trackers include Bul Bul who tracked down the infamous Nemarluk, Tracker Neighbour (see profile) who won the Albert Medal for bravery and Northern Territory artist Long Tom Tjapanangka who worked both as a stock hand and police tracker for years before commencing his artistic career. [4] Tracing their history however at times is difficult as they were often not entered in members diaries or referred to by name but simply as “tracker”. A trackers role was primarily to track suspects and to accompany members on patrol. Territory members quickly became aware of their skills and value as described in a letter written by Mounted Constable Shirley on the 26th November 1880 to the Acting Sub Inspector Besley Melrose. Shirley details his and Mounted Constable South’s pursuit of aboriginal offenders near Barrow Creek. Included in the party of nine were two trackers, Tommy and Jimmy. Jimmy’s services were acquired as he was with the original party of Mr Joseph Skinner and Matthew Connor who were attacked on the 3rd November at night by a large group of natives. Both Connor and Skinner were speared in the attack but survived. Shirley details their tracking and confronting of the of the offenders, “The natives were fired upon by the party, when one of them was seen to fall heavily and was believed to be either killed or mortally wounded. That native being identified by Conner as having been around their camp on the day of the outrage, the tracker, Jimmy, also identified the tracks of one of them as being that of a native who had also been about their camp, by the fact of the heel of his right foot being burnt off.” He goes on to acknowledge the assistance of the volunteers and finishes with due recognition of tracker Jimmy. “The tracker Jimmy also deserves much praise for the manner in which he performed his duties, he having on the 17th Inst. Followed the tracks of some of the natives through dense mulga scrub for four hours, during the greater part of which time, the white men of the party were unable to see the slightest indication of any footprints.”[5] Even in 2008 Sergeant Peter Paolucci recalled his first exposure to tracking skills when in 1974 he watched Police Tracker Brownie Doolan who was stationed at Alice Springs Police Station. Brownie was an Aboriginal man between his 50's and 60's when I knew him. He was employed in washing cars and cleaning out the cells for the majority of time that I was stationed at Alice Springs. He was occasionally used to track offenders in and around the Alice Springs area. However in 1975 there was a murder investigation at Docker River involving an offender by the name of Terry Pollard or similar. Brownie and two other elderly Aboriginal gentlemen went down to the area to track the offender. It was a real eye opening education into this absolutely unbelievable skill. I recall to this day listening to Brownie point out the movements of the offender on a rock surface that was like polished floor boards, telling us who was with him and what he had for breakfast that day (okay I may have over done that bit but as a city boy from the suburbs of inner Carlton (Underbelly country) however I thought he was mighty impressive. From very early on it was obvious that trackers were being armed with revolvers and rifles even before Native Police were armed. In 1874 Tracker Sergeant assisted in the tracking of offenders in the punitive expedition launched after an attack on the Barrow Creek Telegraph Station. Sergeant was essential with his local knowledge and for the survival of the patrol. An Aborigine attacked Sergeant who retaliated and shot his attacker causing serious injury. [6] In 1887 another Tracker, Bob, in Alice Springs with MC Daer and others tracked some suspected cattle killers. During a confrontation with the group they had located spears were thrown and both MC Daer and the tracker reported shot and killed their attackers in “self defence”. Into the 20th Century trackers were still being armed and being involved in some serious incidents that resulted in the deaths of many aborigines. Some of these incidents are highlighted below as they show the dangers faced by trackers in that era and their involvement in some of the incidents that have smeared the history of the Northern Territory Police. In 1926, Tracker Sambo and George were assisting Mounted Constables Sheridan and Hemmings track some cattle killers at Bullita Station. The two trackers were ordered to follow the tracks and did so locating the suspects at a camp. It was later reported that Tracker Sambo had fired shots into the camp killing one and wounding another. The reason being that they feared that if they would be killed if they turned and left the area.[7] In August 1928 an infamous incident occurred after a Dingo Trapper, Frederick Brooks was killed at a water hole near Coniston Station. The killings that occurred after this are referred to as the Coniston Massacre. Trackers accompanied Mounted Constable Murray to round up the Indigenous suspects and Murray was later to report that he and his party killed seventeen aboriginals and returned with only two prisoners. In a follow up expedition to the first Murray, who was not accompanied by Trackers on this occasion, killed a further 14 aborigines in what has been described as a punitive expedition. Some have suggested the actual number killed may have been 70 or 105 and that Police Tracker Paddy may have been responsible for many of them including the alleged clubbing to death of children. Reportedly Tracker Paddy was disliked by many aboriginals because of the events at Conniston and other events, and in 1929 this culminated in an attempt on his life whilst on patrol with Mounted Constable McColl south west of Alice Springs. Tracker Paddy shot and killed one attacker and the other two ran away. [8] Then in October 1934 Tracker Paddy,[9] Tracker Carbine and Mounted Constable McKinnon had arrested three suspects for murder. During the night these three and two others escaped from the camp. One of the suspects, Yokunnunna, was tracked by Tracker Carbine who shot the suspect with a rifle, wounding the suspect who again escaped. Eventually the suspect was cornered in a cave and Mounted Constable McKinnon shot the suspect who later died. The circumstances of the “apprehension” are subject to much conjecture. His death was later determined as legally justified but not warranted in a subsequent inquiry. A board of enquiry would later recommend two distinct groups of Aborigines employed by the Police. a) Native Police who are specially selected men who have received instruction in drill and have undergone a special course of training fitting them for duty amongst the aborigines,{sic} and who should act only under the diract supervision of a white police or patrol officer…and b) trackers who sole duty would be tracking and assisting in transport but who would not be supplied with firearms under ordinary circumstances.[10] Wilson reports that debate dragged on for four years with several drafts of the Native Police Ordinance finally being prepared and passed through Parliament as the Native Constabulary Ordinance 1940. Despite being passed it was never assented to and lay dormant for 25 years until it was repealed. Past and present members have reflected on the use of trackers in numerous books and articles. They were often their teachers, friends and a vital aid in their survival. Author Sidney Downer in his book Patrol Indefinite reports “trackers were as indispensable to the police as rifles, revolvers, or horses” [11] In the book by former Mounted Constable Ron Brown who joined the Northern Territory Police in 1939 he describes his relationship with his Police Trackers and in particular he describes his most respected tracker “A mighty man was Mick Doolan who had given long and faithful service to the Northern Territory Police at Charlotte Waters and Finke.[12] He goes on; “Looking back, I recall the time spent with Mick, over the years on patrol. Naturally, I became very attached to him. In reality I’m not sure if I could have managed without him in the early days-certainly, not in the dry season, when he was someone I could trust-with his instinctive and infallible bush sense and knowledge of the lay of the land and whereabouts of waterholes essential for survival in the inland of Australia.” Such was the respect some members of the Police Force had for their Trackers and their life saving skills Vic Hall in his books Dreamtime Justice and Outback Policeman he dedicates his books to them with the dedications “Conscious of my great debt of gratitude to the faithful men of the “Black Watch”- the Trackers of the Northern Territory Police – to them I dedicate this book.” “I dedicate this book to my Aboriginal Trackers, who rendered the wilderness operations possible.” Trackers often taught their European Police to cook and introduced them to “bush tucker as described by Jim Alexander in the Rain Bird – “I tasted my first goanna at the tracker’s fire behind the police station. It was thrown onto the fire and just covered with ashes. When cooked, the skin peeled off to reveal white meat which tasted like a cross between fish and chicken and was quite delicious.”[13] In an abstract on former member Bill McKinnon who joined in 1931 his introduction into bush policing was described as “He was issued a .44 Winchester rifle, a .45 Smith & Wesson revolver, stores and a train of six camels. He was then sent on his first patrol accompanied by an Aboriginal black tracker known as "Dingo Mick" who accompanied him on all his patrols. Mick taught Bill to cook his first damper – in 15 minutes, charcoal outside, sod inside. On that initial patrol, they left Stuart on 9 June 1931 and returned on 1 October 1931. A total of 85 days and a distance of 1,120 miles. Quite an effort for a novice.[14] A number of trackers became trackers after coming to Police attention when apprehended for various crimes. Downer reports one such tracker, Bul Bul, had served time in prison for a tribal murder concerning kidney fat business, a form of black magic killing. When released from prison he was officially appointed a tracker, and subsequently built himself a reputation that struck fear into the native malefactors all over the Territory. On a number of occasions he went out alone for weeks at a stretch, bringing back natives who were wanted by the police, and he played a prominent part in the capture of two notorious murderers, Nemarluk and Minmarra. [15] Others had more fearsome reputations. “Murdering Bob of Arltunga” was another “poacher turned gamekeeper,” as the reformed tracker has been described. In his old age, after a quarter of a century with the Northern Territory Police, he appeared to be a gentle, white whiskered old aboriginal, but he was still feared as a “bad killer” of earlier days. One mounted constable told a visitor, “Bob has shot more blacks than I have ever aimed at. Bringing in a gang of cattle killers years ago, he gave the white man in charge a nasty turn when he turned up at the station with the head of the ring leader in a bag”. [16] Tracker Neighbour whose story is highlighted later was another “poacher turned gamekeeper” and who saved the life of a European Police member. Some Trackers went the other way from “gamekeeper to poacher”. In August 1968, ex Tracker Billy Benn whilst camped at the Harts Range Racecourse had an argument with the Harry Neal who he fatally shot. Sergeant L.R Cossons and Constable B.A Jobberns attended and whilst searching for the offender the following day, they traced him to a mountainous region where they sighted him at the top of a ridge. The offender fired on Police wounding both members effecting his escape. The offender was pursued by Police and trackers, including Tracker Teddy Egan, for 13 days before being apprehended by Constable Terry O’Brien. [17] Most Trackers however were very devoted to the members they served with. An example of this devotion to the Constables they served is highlighted in 1948 however in this instance the tracker was unable to save his Constable when it was reported that Constable Gilbert whilst conducting an escort with Tracker Jack of a mentally disturbed man to Wauchope (from Tennant Creek) for a hand over to Alice Springs Police. On their return to Tennant Creek near the Devils Marbles their vehicle overturned and Constable Gilbert was killed. The tracker walked to Wauchope to report the accident. As highlighted past members have sung the praises of their trackers and some went the extra distance to repay the service these members gave to them as described in Patrol Indefinite. Tommy was often called “Copper Tommy,” because of the coppery sheen of his skin. He had, according to Mr Johns, far better than average intelligence, plenty of courage, and plenty of laughter. He was the first black tracker in the Territory to be granted a full Federal old-age pension. This was largely the work of Inspector (then Sergeant) J. J. Mannion. At the time, Mannion was sergeant-in-charge at Katherine. He took up the cause of Tommy and his eighty year old tracker mate, Tommy Costello, and after years on the weekly flour, tea, and sugar pension they were given the old-age pension. Both Tommies had served for about forty years as trackers. Roper Tommy, an Allowah native, had become a tracker after his father had been killed in a tribal fight. The late Sergeant Robert Stott, who investigated the fight, took Tommy back to his station with him.[18] The trackers service in the Northern Territory Police Force is one of a long distinguished service and of whom many Police Officers owe their lives particularly in the earlier years when they were thrust out into the bush on extended patrols. Not unlike many European Police families such as the Grants, Stotts’s, O’Briens, Godwins and Illetts many trackers followed their families into the Police Force. One such example is that from Timber Creek. One of the longest serving staff at Timber Creek was Tracker George, who started working the mid-1930’s as a “private boy”, then as a tracker. Tracker George’s wife Maggie worked as a cook for the Timber Creek Police for 50 years. Two of Tracker George’s grandchildren, Lorraine and Christopher Jones. Became Aboriginal Community Police Officers in the 1990’s and a street was named after Tracker George in 1998.[19]. ACPO Lorraine Jones continues to serve as an ACPO in 2009. Many Aboriginal men and some women have worked as police trackers, often on a casual basis or sometimes for longer stints. Often they were only paid a few shillings with rations supplied to their families. In 1944 a trackers wages were reported as 4 shillings per week .[20] The end for trackers came in 1993 when the Estimates Review Committee of 1991 determined that Police should review the need to continue their employment. At the time there were still 39 trackers but as was reported “in all cases the trackers duties included general station cleaning duties commonly known as fatigues, car washing and police centre maintenance duties. [21] Twenty five positions were abolished and the remaining were not replaced as they retired or resigned. The remaining four positions were converted from trackers positions to labourers positions. In 2002 the Northern Territory Police Historical Society proposed the commemoration to recognise the dedication and efforts of trackers through out the territory in some way. A generic plaque was struck and laid at all Northern Territory Police Stations in 2003. The wording of the plaque being as follows;

This plaque has been placed in

recognition of the contribution

made to policing in the Northern

Territory by the Aboriginal Police

Trackers and their families.

Since 1870 their skills, perseverance and

dedication to duty have played a vital

role in outback policing.

Paul White

Commissioner of Police


[1] [2] Offender was Billy Benn an ex tracker. [3] ibid [4] Sykes & Peters P66 [5] Sykes & Peters P66 [6] Wilson (1996) P26 reference Letter from Trooper Gason dated 23 February 1874, NTPHS.) McLaren & Alcorta [7] Wilson (1995) p 7 [8] Wilson (1996) P99 [9] Wilson (1996) p100, Wilson states it is believed this is the same Paddy as in the Conniston incidents however due to poor records of the time he is unable to claim this with certainty. In Wilsons book Tracker Carbine is credited with shooting the suspect however in McLarens accounts Tracker Paddy shot and wounded the suspect. [10] Report of the Board of Enquiry, AA ACT, CRS A1/1, Item Number 35/1613 cited in Wilson (1996) p 107. [11] Downer 1963 p46 [12] Brown (1990) Page 5 [13] Alexander 1996 [14] McPherson [15] Downer 1963 [16] Downer 1963 [17] McLaren p 1444 [18] Downer (1963), p 54 [19] Munday 1998 [20] Courtney [21] Wilson (1995) p 16

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