NSW Police seeks to rebuild relationship with Moree's Aboriginal community after Gordon Copeland's death

NSW Police seeks to rebuild relationship with Moree’s Aboriginal community after Gordon Copeland’s death

Over two weeks in a country New South Wales courtroom, police officers were moved to tears, made apologies, and admitted that their best had not been enough as they tried to explain how a 22-year-old man died while fleeing from them.

Images have been used with the permission of the family.

Family members watching the inquest into his death at times pain, shook their heads, and left the gallery when the evidence became too painful.

Gomeroi man Gordon Copeland drowned in the flood-swollen Gwydir River in Moree last July when he ran from police who had been following him and his two friends in a car.

Gordon Copeland with his son Gordon Junior.(Supplied: Aboriginal Legal Service)

The events of that day, and the evidence heard at the inquest, now have the police wondering how they will move forward with the local community.

“I don’t know how we mend our relationship,” the region’s police commander, Superintendent Steve Laksa, told the coroner.

“The tragedy of Gordon Copeland and the potential failures there by the police are tragic, but I don’t know what we do in terms of moving forward from here.”

Man in formal navy police suit and cap, looks away from the camera as he walks towards it
Steve Laksa told the inquest he is not sure how to mend the relationship with the community.(ABC New England North West: Kathleen Ferguson)

‘Inhuman’ body cam evidence

Constable Nick Murray was on the scene early that July morning when he saw someone of “Aboriginal appearance” go down an “8-metre cliff” into the Gwydir River.

He had switched on his body cam, and the video from that night was played to the inquest.

While shining his torch through high grass, he can be heard saying, “F*** me they’re young aye, with clothes on too, I’m surprised he hasn’t f****** drowned.”

Mr Copeland had fallen into the river minutes earlier.

A river and land.
Gordon Copeland was last seen disappearing down a bend in the Gwydir River.(ABC New England North West: Kathleen Ferguson)

Constable Murray can be heard laughing, and said, “F*** this little c***”.

About nine minutes after Mr Copeland had entered the river, Constable Murray said, “I don’t know what do you wanna do, keep looking? F*** me”.

At the inquest, he was questioned about his level of concern.

“I was very concerned … we’re there trying my hardest to find the person, and I was very thoughtful in trying to make sure he’s fine,” Constable Murray said.

“What have you learned from this?” asked counsel assisting the coroner Peggy Dwyer.

“Act in a more professional way on body-worn video, I guess. What I said was a coping mechanism, I can’t control that it just blurts out,” Constable Murray said.

“My reactions and what I said was wrong, knowing what happened,” he said.

Mr Copeland’s cousin Lesley Fernando told the court this evidence was “utterly disgusting”.

“It’s inhuman, the actions on that video, that we will now live with forever,” she said.

“We will never unsee that or unhear it.”

Family member of Gordon Copeland upset at search site.
Lesley Fernando says police gave her a post-it note with information to continue the search for her cousin.(ABC New England North West: Kemii Maguire)

That was not the last time police were at the river while Mr Copeland was still alive.

Those same officers were sent back to collect evidence an hour later, and what they found was a person in pain and struggling to stay afloat in floodwater.

Officers told the inquest they pleaded with the person to swim towards them.

He tried to swim to them, but the current was too strong, and they watched him drift off around the bend.

It was later agreed that person was Gordon Copeland. It was the last time he was seen alive.

A search kicked off shortly afterwards and lasted about eight hours, after information from detectives led to its termination.

Local police told the family two people were in the car on July 10, and they had been accounted for.

Detective Brad Beddoes got this information from the car’s owner, who was not there that night.

But a third person was in the car, and that person was Gordon Copeland.

Man with young family.
Gordon Copeland died before his second son was born.(Supplied: Aboriginal Legal Service)

Detective Beddoes told the inquest he hadn’t spoken to officers on the ground that July morning, hadn’t watched their body-cam videos, and hadn’t spoken to the two other people in the car.

He said he “probably” drew that conclusion too early after being questioned about why he did not properly check his information.

“Clearly now it wasn’t good enough, but I’d done my best. I’m sorry for your loss,” he said while crying in the witness box.

Lesley Fernando told the court she pleaded with officers for any information to allow the family to keep looking after police called off a search for someone missing in the river — and said she was given a post-it note with directions to where the man was last seen.

“This was the resource they gave to look for our loved one,” she said.

Seven people stand in front of a black metal bar fence with brick pillars
Mr Copeland’s cousin Lesley Fernando (third from left) was supported by family when she gave evidence.(ABC New England North West: Kathleen Ferguson)

The family spent thousands of donated dollars on wetsuits, kayaks and go-pros, food and fuel for their own search, which did not end until Mr Copeland was found by police months later.

Josephine Brown, Ms Copeland’s partner, was heavily pregnant at the time of his disappearance, and was trudging up and down the river searching for the father of her sons.

Woman stands with toddler and young boy, wearng a black jumper featuring a photo of herself and a man in a heart shape.
Gordon Copeland’s partner Josephine Brown and their two sons attend the coronial inquest.(ABC New England North West: Lani Oataway)

Police maintain they never stopped looking.

It was not until NSW Coroner Teresa O’Sullivan wrote to them months later, encouraging another wide-scale search, that they would find Mr Copeland.

SES pointing at map
Mounted police, SES, divers, and helicopter and boat crews were brought in for the final search.(ABC New England North West: Lani Oataway)

He was discovered by police divers, less than 500 meters from where he was seen entering the river.

Superintendent Steve Laksa told the inquest this case had set back efforts to build relations between police and the local Aboriginal community.

Before Gordon Copeland disappeared, he said the district had run an operation which prevented a “significant” number of young Aboriginal people from going to jail. What that operation involved was not clear.

“We are not going to build that trust while ever we continue to put handcuffs on kids and lock them up,” he told the inquest.

Man in police uniform speaks to microphones in front of police station.
Superintendent Laksa addressing the media when police widened the search for Mr Copeland in October 2021.(ABC New England: Kemii Maguire)

Superintendent Laksa also told the coroner most of the officers in Moree were straight from the Police Academy, with little experience.

He said he understood the importance of recognising the region’s violent past, including massacres and Stolen Generation, and its lasting effects.

“I want to be able to walk down the street and be in Moree, I want my police to be able to be able to be on the street and be in Moree, and I want us to have a positive relationship,” he said.

A woman looks down at a white t-shirt she is holding over her torso
Gordon Copeland’s mother Narelle Copeland was supported by family on the last day of the inquest.(ABC New England North West: Kathleen Ferguson)

But even he was unsure how to begin that process.

“If there is any chance that we can connect with the family, even if that is sitting down and listening to the stuff we don’t want to hear, I would take that opportunity straight away,” he said.

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