A South Australian coroner has described the drowning of a man in the River Murray as a tragic Aboriginal death in custody, but says it was not the fault of police.
In February 2013, Jason Wilson, 40, was questioned by officers for allegedly stealing a handbag from a car before he jumped in the river near Berri and died.
An inquest heard Mr Wilson became vocally abusive to police, denied he stole the bag and stated he was someone else.
He swam into the choppy river where he struggled and two officers entered to try get him but he disappeared.
Coroner Mark Johns said it was Mr Wilson’s fault for entering the water.
“The primary responsibility for entering the river must rest with him and it cannot be suggested that he was chased into the water or forced into the water by any action of the police,” the coroner said.
“His action in entering the river and evading police tends to suggest he had some motivation for avoiding them, although that could easily be attributable to past negative experiences with police and authorities.
“Mr Wilson’s story is another tragic example of an Aboriginal death in custody.”
Police’s rescue attempt ‘highly commendable’
The coroner said there was not enough evidence to suggest Mr Wilson stole the bag, but made no criticism of the police’s decision to question and arrest him to establish his proper identification.
“The behaviour of [the police] in entering the river to effect a swimming rescue was highly commendable,” the coroner said.
The coroner said the police’s actions were fearless although not best practice in line with evidence from an aquatic safety expert who recommended the use of boats at the inquiry.
Mr Wilson was a Barkindji man who lived in Wilcannia in far west NSW.
A post-mortem examination showed he had health problems that affected his physical strength.
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