NIT FORUMS: Palm island riot a sensible, necessary response

Issue 127, April 19, 2007: Several Palm Islanders have been acquitted of charges related to the burning down of the local watch house. But at least one Palm Islander - Lex Wotton - awaits his day in court. CHRIS GRAHAM argues that the torching of the police station, rather than a crime, was a sensible, necessary retaliation.

We're a nation of people who instinctively say that violence is never the answer. But it was the answer in Iraq and Afghanistan. So why was it not the answer on Palm Island after an Aboriginal man was beaten and left to die in a police cell?

By the time Palm Islanders set fire to the police watch house, the community already knew that a healthy, happy man - Mulrunji Doomadgee - had died a brutal, callous death less than an hour after being taken into police custody.

He had allegedly been struck so hard by Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley - a mountain of a man, at six foot seven inches tall with a frame to match - that his liver had been "cleaved in two".

By the time Palm Islanders set fire to the police watch house, Mulrunji had lay dying on the floor of his cell while Snr Sgt Hurley allegedly ignored closed circuit video footage of him "writhing in pain" and crying out for help. Cries, mind you, which were loud enough to be heard outside the police station, but which were ignored by police inside.

By the time Palm Islanders set fire to the police watch house, Queensland police had already appointed local detectives to investigate local police, rather than the State Homicide Investigation Group as stipulated in the State Coroner's Guidelines concerning deaths in police custody.

By the time Palm Islanders set fire to the watch house, the local investigators had been picked up at the Palm Island airport by Snr Sgt Hurley. One of them was a "known friend" of Snr Sgt Hurley.

By the time Palm Islanders set fire to the watch house, both investigators had enjoyed dinner at Snr Sgt Hurley's home on the night of Mulrunji's death.

By the time Palm Islanders set fire to the watch house, Snr Sgt Hurley had allegedly already compared notes with other witnesses at the police station, a gross violation of the legal process.

By the time Palm Islanders set fire to the watch house, officials had already conducted an autopsy on Mulrunji's body without being warned that there were allegations of assault against police.

By the time Palm Islanders set fire to the watch house, the autopsy had been publicly released, claiming that Mulrunji suffered his injuries after a "fall".

In short, by the time Palm Islanders set fire to the police watch house, Queensland Police had well and truly begun to seriously pervert the course of justice.

Aboriginal police liaison officer Lloyd Bengaroo was with Snr Sgt Hurley when Mulrunji was arrested.

Local investigators interviewed Mr Bengaroo and wanted to know what he had seen, if anything, inside the police station, where the alleged assault by Hurley took place.

Acting State Coroner Christine Clements, in her inquiry, noted: "Bengaroo was asked whether he was watching what happened after the fall. Bengaroo said, 'No I wasn't'. Inspector Webber asked, 'What were you doing? What, how come you were standing there?' Bengaroo said, 'I can't remember. I just stood there because I was thinking, um, if I see something I might get into trouble myself or something. The family might harass me or something you know'.

To which the interviewing officer, Inspector Webber, merely responded, 'Oh, OK.'

"How these senior investigating officers could have let that response remain unexplored was as wilfully blind as Bengaroo chose to be."

The Police Ethical Standards Command quickly became involved in the case. And the errors continued.

"Even after the Ethical Standards Officers... took over the investigation, they were party to an 'off the record' discussion with Senior Sergeant Hurley and Officers Robinson and Kitching about discrepancies in time.

"But this was not documented as part of the investigation by those officers; it only came to light incidentally through Senior Sergeant Hurley's answers to the [Crime and Misconduct Commission] officer."

The investigation had already been seriously compromised by the time Queensland Police Commissioner Bob Atkinson ordered the CMC to take over, on November 24.

On November 26, a CMC investigative team travelled to Palm Island.

It was too little too late - the police station was burnt to the ground later that day.

Coroner Clements commented: "It has been abundantly clear that throughout this investigation, it was not until the Crime and Misconduct Commission assumed investigations that there was any proper support or assistance provided to Indigenous witnesses".

She also noted that it wasn't until the CMC took over that she could have confidence that the investigation "proceeded thoroughly, competently and impartially".

Apart from attempts to disrupt the investigation internally, a battle was pitched to win the public relations war.

Amid a raft of inaccurate information fed to media were claims that Mulrunji had suffered his fatal injuries prior to coming into contact with police.

It was speculation widely reported by media.

The seeds of that rumour were sown by police.

In the days before the riot, a senior Queensland police officer told the Townsville Bulletin a pathologist from Cairns was being flown in to conduct a post-mortem examination.

"We want to know why he died. We want to know if perhaps he was dying when he was arrested," he said.

That 'loop hole' was finally closed when expert witness Associate Professor Stephen Lynch told the coronial inquest that there was no "physical possibility of Mulrunji having sustained the liver injury prior to the point of being removed from the police vehicle at the back of the police station".

But the defence of the police service and the depiction of Aboriginal people in the media as violent, hysterical liars was already well under way.

On the day of the riots, Queensland Police Commissioner Bob Atkinson rejected allegations of police brutality: "I'm not pre-judging the outcome of [the investigation] but I'll be very keen to see who has made this claim and obviously monitor this case very closely as it proceeds".

Yes, Bob - you were pre-judging the outcome of the investigation.

Perhaps Commissioner Atkinson wasn't aware of the police interview with Palm Islander Roy Bramwell, which had been conducted several days earlier.

Unbeknown to Snr Sgt Hurley, while he was allegedly struggling with Mulrunji on the floor of the police station, Mr Bramwell was sitting in the watchhouse, obscured from Hurley's view.

That's where the allegations of police brutality came from, but it's entirely possible Commissioner Atkinson didn't know of them, because according to Coroner Clements neither did the forensic pathologist who conducted the first autopsy on Mulrunji's battered body - the local detectives who led the investigation left any reference to it out of the first report on the incident.

In the absence of that "crucial information", the pathologist subsequently released findings that said Mulrunji's injuries were consistent with having fallen on a flat surface.

Those findings - not surprisingly - sparked the riot.

In spite of its inaccuracy, the report was leapt on by police and politicians.

Even before calm had been restored on Palm Island, Queensland Minister for Police Judy Spence told ABC radio: "... the Coroner's report did say that the injuries that the deceased man suffered were consistent with a fall".

Commissioner Atkinson told media (even though he apparently still wasn't "prejudging" any investigation): "There was a scuffle and the police officer and the person who has died then fell to the ground on some concrete steps. And it is my understanding that the injuries sustained by the deceased person were entirely consistent with that version of events".

Aboriginal Australians must be a clumsy race of people - so many have died falling up the steps of a police station.

Commissioner Atkinson turned out to be less than prophetic on a number of fronts.

In the early days of the investigation, he also told media that his officers would "fully co-operate" with any investigation over the death.

Snr Sgt Hurley had to be directed by the Police Commissioner under powers in the Police Service Administration Act to answer questions asked by the Crime and Misconduct Commission during a December 2004 interview.

And Snr Sgt Chris Hurley finally had to be directed by the coroner to give evidence - he refused to testify voluntarily.

So when the coroner handed down her findings - replete with allegations that Snr Sgt Hurley had lied to the inquest - what did Commissioner Atkinson do?

He didn't suspend Snr Sgt Hurley.

He moved him to a desk job on the Gold Coast.

Then there's the public comments of Queensland Premier, Peter Beattie.

"I understand these recommendations from the coroner are damaging and anyone who reads them knows that," Beattie remarked, before supporting the Queensland Police decision not to suspend Snr Sgt Hurley.

Sorry Mr Beattie, but they were not damaging.

They were devastating.

They were also gut-wrenching.

If Coroner Clement's findings were converted to a Hollywood script, people would write the movie off as ridiculous.

No-one would believe, for example, that in this day and age - and after a five year Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody - that a cop under suspicion would be investigated by a mate.

No-one would believe that the cop and the police appointed to investigate him would dine together in the cop's home just eight hours after the killing.

But at least Beattie's public comments weren't as blatantly insensitive as those of the Queensland Police Union (QPU).

The QPU's initial response shortly after the riots was to issue a public appeal for "officers who lost everything they owned in the Palm Island riots".

"They literally escaped this scene with the shirts on their backs. There are two families who have lost everything they ever owned, including motor vehicles," the QPU said.

Well here's what Mulrunji Doomadgee's family lost.

Tracey Twaddle lost her life partner. Jane, Elizabeth and Valmai lost their brother. And Mulrunji's son lost his father. And then took his own life.

Since the handing down of coroner's findings, the QPU has gone from insensitive to downright offensive.

Late last year, Union head Gary Wilkinson described the coroner's findings as a "witch hunt". He subsequently retracted the remark - another example of too little too late from a Queensland police officer.

I defy anyone to read the complete report handed down by Christine Clements and come to the conclusion that it was a "witch hunt".

I also defy anyone to come to the conclusion that Peter Beattie came to - which is that the report is "damaging".

And I defy anyone to read the findings and maintain the views expressed by people like Beattie and Spence that there was "no excuse" for burning down the Palm Island police station.

Prior to the riot, media coverage of Mulrunji's death was limited mostly to Queensland media.

Outside the Sunshine State it was reported only by The Australian (as a brief on page 6) and by the ABC.

After the riot, the death of Mulrunji Doomadgee was big news.

It remains that way today solely because of the riots. And media scrutiny of the Queensland government and its police service is the best hope the Doomadgee family has of getting any modicum of justice, however late it may (or may not) come.

Not only was the torching of the Palm Island police station justified, but set against the actions of Queensland officials, it was a sensible, necessary act.

What would you do if people in power killed a member of your community and in the course of ensuing investigation, you could see the justice being perverted?

The coroner's findings can be downloaded from NIT's website at www.nit.com.au/downloads.

They should be required reading for every Australian.

While you read them, remember that to this day, the only people to spend any time in prison over this awful tragedy are Palm Islanders.

No-one has yet been found culpable for the death of Mulrunji Doomadgee.

The truth about this country is that White Australia is just as prone to violence as black Australia.

The last riot to make news in Australia was at Cronulla.

It was a 'white riot' that involved thousands, not hundreds.

And unlike Palm Island, it wasn't in retaliation to the death of one of our own, nor was it a protest against a compromised police investigation.

The Cronulla riot was sparked because a couple of people of 'Middle Eastern appearance' bashed a lifesaver on a beach.

Like Palm Island, property was destroyed in the Cronulla riots.

But unlike Palm Island, people were injured at Cronulla, including police.

There must be a Royal Commission not just into the death of Mulrunji Doomadgee, but into the Queensland government's handling of the events surrounding it.

Snr Sgt Hurley has finally been suspended and ultimately charged, but not before time and not before the Queensland Director of Public Prosecutions had to be over-ruled.

The police and officials whose actions, intentional or otherwise, threatened to pervert the course of justice should also be charged.

The Palm Islanders convicted over the riots should have their convictions quashed.

In reality, a Royal Commission is unlikely to restore Aboriginal confidence in the Queensland police service - obviously, we've had one before but it seems little has changed.

But in a country that routinely says violence is never the answer, and then habitually provides it as a solution, you've got to expect it's going to take a few decades and more than one attempt to convince some of those in power that they are not judge, jury and executor.


* Chris Graham is the founding editor of the National Indigenous Times

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