In October of 1999, I was on duty and driving in Claremont when I saw a speeding car on Stirling Highway. The driver failed to pull over and a pursuit started. The car was being driven by an 18 year old Indigenous man. Just prior to me seeing the car, the driver had escaped from Police after being arrested with his mates in Perth. The chase lasted just over 10 minutes and was pretty scary at times. He was determined to get away, but I was as equally determined to catch him.
The chase got to the Old Fremantle Bridge, where the car mounted the curb, the driver jumped out and bolted down the embankment to the river. He thought he could hide under the bridge, but as I was only a few seconds behind him, he panicked and jumped into the Swan. He started swimming in order to try and make it the 200metres across the river, but by half way, I could see he was in trouble. He would bob under the water and then come back up, so I knew I had to get out there quickly! Within seconds, I stripped off to my jocks & socks and taking my gun out of its holster, I handcuffed it to a pole under the bridge. I dived in and started the swim out to get him!
The water took my breath away. It was freezing! By the time I got to the young man, I could not even see him anymore. I felt him with my legs under the surface, grabbed him and pulled his unconscious body above the water. Now I was struggling. I tried to swim him back to shore, but I was exhausted. I will be honest and say my first thought was to let him go and save my own life, but I just couldn’t do that to him. Police on the Freo side of the bridge had seen what was going on and had shouted to a couple of guys in their tinny to come and get us. It was only a few seconds, but it seemed like hours before they got there and pulled us up.
We got the young fella in the boat and then it was my turn. As soon as I was out, I could see the young man was blue and not breathing. So as I started CPR, I shouted at them to head to shore and within seconds we were there. With the help of others, we carried him to the back of a police van. I jumped in with him and continued CPR as we sped to Fremantle Hospital. Finally, I started seeing colour in his face and with a splatter of sea water and everything he had for lunch, he was back with me. Though it was only mumbles, I was so happy to hear his voice!
As I watched him shiver, I soon realised how cold I also was. I don’t think I have ever been that cold since! So there I was in the back of a paddy wagon, in my jocks rubbing my hands up and down the back and chest of a stranger, trying to get us both warm. As the door of the van opened, I couldn’t describe how warm that first hospital blanket felt. We both were treated for hypothermia. I was in one bay and he was in the next, separated by a curtain. I could hear the nurses talking to him, asking his name. He gave it to them and I was honoured to hear it. I still remember that moment to this day and it always makes me wonder how he is and where he is.
We spoke for hours as nurses and doctors passed though. I told him my story and he told me his. As his Mum arrived, I closed the curtain to give them privacy, but within a few seconds she opened it again and as I sat on the bed, she gave me a hug. She was in tears and thanked me for saving her son. My own son was only 6 months old, so I came to know what she was going through. As my son grew, whenever I remember that hug, it always brings me to tears. I didn’t know it at the time, but it meant something to me. It had a massive impact on my life.
It showed me the divide could be bridged. I saw him not as an Aboriginal criminal, but as a young man who had potential and was loved. As we talked, he and his family saw me not as a uniform, but as a man who had the courage to genuinely look beyond bias and prejudice. He and his family accepted fault with humility and understood he would still need to face up to his mistakes in court. I was prepared to use my discretion and give him the chance to reset his life. For the past 21 years, I have remained a mentor to Aboriginal youth and an advocate for Aboriginal footballers. I continue to hope we can all continue to find such common ground to make each of our lives the best they can be. We are all human.
An excerpt from Paul Litherlands Auto-biography, 'Finding my Way Out of the Darkness'.