Local leaders on Palm Island have predicted further outbreaks of violence after the Queensland Police Commissioner decided not to stand down an officer a coroner ruled responsible for the death of an Aboriginal man in custody. Police Commissioner Bob Atkinson said Senior Sergeant Christopher Hurley would remain on the job, but he would be restricted to non-operational duties. Hurley is now based on the Gold Coast.
On Wednesday, Acting State Coroner Christine Clements concluded her 18 month investigation of the death of 36-year-old Mulrunji Doomadgee. Her assessment was damning. She ruled that Senior Sergeant Hurley repeatedly punched the man after lost after losing his temper during an arrest. Mulrunji died from internal injuries received during the attack. Clements accused Queensland Police of not learning anything from the Deaths in Custody commissions of the 1990s. Her damning report said : "The arrest of Mulrunji was not an appropriate exercise of police discretion. There were a range of alternatives to arrest available that should have been preferred.” She continued “"He was a fit, healthy man . . He was not a trouble maker and had never been arrested on the island. It is reprehensible that the detailed recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody should have to be referred to, so many years after the Royal Commission. The evidence is clear however that these recommendations are still apt and still ignored." Clements was also critical of police practises related to deaths-in-custody especially the fact that police needed to review their training for police officers, and the way they investigated deaths-in-custody.
Queensland Premier Peter Beattie today defended his police force by saying “"I understand these recommendations from the coroner are damaging and anyone who reads them knows that but I just want to assure Queenslanders that our police service is one of the best in the world. But he refused to be drawn on whether Sgt Hurley should be stood down, saying it was a matter for Police Commissioner Bob Atkinson. He said the important issue was whether the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) would decide whether Sgt Hurley faces prosecution.
Mulrunji’s body was found in a police cell on 19 November 2004. His death occurred barely an hour after he was arrested for the minor “drunk and disorderly” offence of “causing a public nuisance”. Two witnesses came forward to say they saw Mulrunji being assaulted at the time of the arrest. The autopsy report was held up for a week which fed suspicions in the local community of a cover-up. When finally released to the family, the report revealed that he had died of internal bleeding, after suffering four broken ribs and a ruptured spleen and liver. The initial coroner’s report suggested there was no evidence of force and he may simply have fallen on a hard surface. The findings were eventually read to a public meeting causing an immediate furious response. Anticipating this outcome, the Queensland government flew in extra police, boosting the island’s contingent from 4 to 20.
About 300 members of the crowd marched to the court house and police station and set fire to both buildings while threatening to kill police officers who had already fled the buildings. In response, police invoked emergency powers and flew in at least 80 officers, including members of the anti-terrorism Special Emergency Response Team (SERT). Police used the draconian terms of the Queensland Public Safety Preservation Act 1986 to declare an emergency situation. Dressed in full battle armour and carrying semi-automatic weapons, they raided the homes of the community leaders. At 4:30 am, four carloads of police launched a Gestapo-style raid on the home of Lex Wotton, a former Palm Island councillor and an alleged participant in the riot. Witnesses said he was shot in the leg with a Taser immobiliser (stun gun) while he had his hands on his head. Five police aimed rifles at him while his terrified wife and children looked on.
The Palm Island Aboriginal Council issued an open letter to Premier Beattie protesting that local people were living “under siege”. Spokesman Brad Foster said “Our children are feeling terrorised; 80 police are not necessary” and he accused police of treating Palm Islanders as anti-terrorism guinea pigs. Beattie visited the island under armed escort and defended police actions saying “I don’t believe it is reasonable to deal with these matters with one hand tied behind their back.”
Aborigines account for nearly one-third of all deaths in custody, even though they make up only 2 percent of the Australian population. The commission referred to by the State Coroner was the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, which reviewed 99 deaths of indigenous prisoners that occurred between 1980 and 1991. It failed to indict any police officers and another 145 deaths occurred in custody in the following decade.
Palm Island is the Sunshine State’s ugly secret. Sited some 65km north of Townsville on a beautiful part of the Barrier Reef it is home to 4,000 Aboriginals making it the largest indigenous compound in Australia. It is a third world community in a first world country. Until 1985 it served as a penal colony. It was attractive to authorities as Aboriginals could be kept in isolation from the rest of the community. The island is now administered by the Palm Island Aboriginal Council but is lacking in all but the most basic facilities. There is no secondary school or hospital on the island.
Most of the police stationed on the island prior to the riot have reportedly declined to return. The Queensland Government has admitted it may be difficult to find police prepared to serve on the island at this time but has repeatedly stated it is committed to a continued police presence on the island. Seven locals are still awaiting trial for charges related to the riots and Beattie has so far refused to drop the charges as a goodwill gesture to the community. Locals are desperately hoping that the coroner's report will vindicate the community. However the stonewalling attitude of Police and their supportive Government is likely to mean more hard times ahead for the beleaguered islanders.