Why I wrote this and am asking you to read it
I have been interested in issues of justice and human rights for Indigenous Australians since the early 80s. Since the death of Daniel Yock in police custody in Brisbane in 1993 and John Howard’s negative response to the Wik Native Title ruling, I have been involved in the call to abolish the discrimination and structural injustices still imposed on many Indigenous Australians.
I have had some friends from Palm Island for many years and was horrified to hear of a death in police custody on 19 November 2004. I was able to attend part of the still-unfinished Inquest into this death (27 Feb – 3 Mar 2006).
I hope that you will find these notes from an ‘observer at the inquest’ interesting. I am motivated to take action regarding some matters which came up and I am hoping that enough readers may be prepared to join me to enable us to achieve some real improvements in the life of people on Palm. In fact, as I have been working on this article, I am becoming more and more motivated to look at the bigger picture and see if we can work for very fundamental changes.
Some background: Death in custody on Palm Island, 19 Nov 2004, and summary of subsequent events as reported in the media.
These notes have been read by Erykah Kyle, Mayor of Palm Island, and she is happy for me to circulate them: 10th May 2006
Cameron Doomadgee, aged 36, is arrested by Officer in Charge of Police on Palm Island, Snr Sgt Chris Hurley at 10:20am and is pronounced dead at 11:25am by an ambulance called to the police cells at 11:22am.
An investigation into the death is ordered by police management, to be carried out by Detective Sgt Darren Robinson, Inspector Hickey and Detective Inspector Warren Webber, who is Northern Regional Crime Coordinator. All are known to and friendly with Sgt Hurley and have dinner at his house that night. stated on 3 Mar 06 at Inquest
Start of investigation – the relevant areas are not treated as a crime scene, contrary to the Recommendations of the Deaths in Custody Report in 1991. 3 Mar 06
Details of the post-mortem are revealed to the Palm Island Community: Mulrunji, as his family have requested he now be called, died with 4 fractured ribs and his liver cut nearly in half.
The Palm Island Community is outraged and erupts in spite of calls for calm by Palm Island Council. I am not sure of the sequence but the police station and cells are burned, a State of Emergency is declared and a large Special Emergency Response Team (SERT) are flown to the island. Many arrests are made, doors to houses are kicked in, people who are not even on the island, are on the list to be arrested and Palm Island is Big News. Information from Media reports and personal communication from Palm residents.
Peter Beattie flies up to Palm and announces to the Council his 5 point plan to ‘fix’ the problems on the island. No discussion, no negotiation just a top down statement…. Meanwhile more than 13 people have been removed from the island by police and are later given very onerous bail conditions, including exclusion from the island. Information from Media reports and Open Letter from PI Council 28 Nov 04.
Inquest starts on Palm and then Coroner excuses himself as he has carried out some previous investigations into complaints against Sgt Hurley and also had some social contact with lawyers which might compromise the inquest. Media reports Note: as a member of the public listening as closely as I could to the media reports, it was very hard to follow what was happening, or not happening…
Since the arrest of many islanders after the burning of the police station, there is ongoing media attention on their tough bail conditions and also on the claims of police officers to have been frightened for their lives during the disturbances on Palm.
29 -31 March
It is in this atmosphere that a meeting is held in Brisbane to discuss how and where the inquest will be resumed. Chaired by the Deputy Coroner, Christine Clements, for 3 days lawyers argue about the conditions for the resumed inquest. The police want everything held in Townsville, Palm Islanders want it on Palm AND want Sgt Hurley’s past history to be available for discussion in court. The Palm Island Mayor, Doomadgee family and some community members attend the Brisbane meeting and some stay with me. I attend all of it, but, like the islanders, I find the discussions very difficult to follow.
After this hearing in Brisbane, Coroner Christine Clements rules that the details of any complaints against Sgt Hurley are not to be published in the media and will not be admissible in Court. Months later it is announced that the resumed inquest will be held in 2006, on 27-28 February on Palm and 1-3 March in Townsville…
Meanwhile Sgt Hurley has been reassigned to the Gold Coast, Detective Sgt Robinson is also off the island and members of the community are still in a state of unrest wondering how the inquest will go and what will eventuate…. Police presence has been heavily increased on Palm. Numbers varies but have jumped from around 6 officers to around 18, and officers live in heavily fenced compounds.
The Resumed Inquest and what it covered, 27 Feb to 3 Mar
The initial inquest had covered much of the actual details of Mulrunji’s arrest and death but there had been no discussion of any previous complaints or incidents in which Sgt Hurley was involved.
After considerable legal activity, it was ruled that some incidents that happened on Palm in 2004 and in which Sgt Hurley was a major player, could be considered at the Inquest.
So at the resumed inquest on 27–28 Feb and 1st– 3rd March, witnesses to these incidents were interviewed, and then Sgt Hurley and D Sgt Robinson.
I was surprised to see the number of barristers, with attendant solicitors, who were present. It certainly makes it all very intimidating for witnesses to see at least seven Barristers present, all of whom can cross-examine them:
Counsel assisting the Coroner, Terry Martin; Counsel for the Doomadgee family, Mr Callaghan; Counsel for Palm Island Council, Andrew Boe; Counsel for the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, J Hunyour; Counsel for Sgt Hurley, Steve Zillman; Counsel for Sgt Robinson; Counsel for the Police Commissioner.
Details of the four 'significant incidents'
1. Barbara Pilot’s toe and foot were severely damaged. She alleged that this damage was caused by a police car, driven by Sgt Hurley, running over her foot, and that Sgt Hurley did not check her condition nor render her any assistance. A metatarsus bone was pushed completely out of its socket and through the skin, which caused very serious pain. She required several visits to Townsville specialists to get the bone back into position.
What I heard at the inquest:
Ms Pilot was talking to Sgt Hurley, at the window of the police car, 9:30pm in an unlit street: he told her to move away. She fell and screamed ‘you’ve run over my foot’ or some such thing. Accounts differ about when the car was moving…. There was a woman screaming on the ground. Sgt Hurley said that he opened the door and looked out and could see no injuries, then he called to two men nearby to pick her up, and drove off. Evidence from the other police officer in the car was that the window was kept closed and that the door was not opened. Sgt Hurley did not get out of the car to investigate.
Sgt Hurley said he then went to the hospital to interview a possible domestic violence victim – but she had already left before his arrival – and stayed to have tea with the nurses. Dr Leahy, who was working at the hospital at the time, disagreed, stating Sgt Hurley had arrived at the hospital saying a woman might come in claiming to have had her foot run over. After Ms Pilot had arrived and had her foot examined, Dr Leahy said that Sgt Hurley was very insistently asking if the injury could have been caused by something other than a tire. Sgt Hurley denied that the first conversation with Dr Leahy had taken place.
Ms Pilot was airlifted to Townsville hospital where she had treatment for the foot and then returned for surgery a couple of weeks later. Dr Leahy said the injury was severe and extremely painful.
2. Noel Cannon was arrested by Sgt Hurley. In the police cell he kept asking for a mattress and alleged that Sgt Hurley lost his temper, kneed him in the stomach and grabbed him by the throat, squeezing so hard that Mr Cannon wet himself.
Sgt Hurley categorically denied this. The relevant video was not secured by the investigating officer so is unavailable…
3. Neville Bonner woke to find his girlfriend and Sgt Hurley in his bedroom. She was collecting her things under St Hurley’s escort as she and Mr Bonner had had a fight the previous evening. Mr Bonner took strong exception to waking to find his girlfriend and a police officer in his bedroom. Soon things became heated and Sgt Hurley arrested Mr Bonner for obstruction. At the police car, Mr Bonner wriggled out of Sgt Hurley’s hold and ran away. There was more confrontation and it escalated into more serious charges for Mr Bonner.
4. When Douglas Clay, known to D Sgt Robinson to have mental problems, barged into the police station with a beer in his hand, he found 6 police officers in the room. He claims that he forgot his original purpose, which was to ask for help for his mental illness, and started swearing and abusing the police.
D Sgt Robinson did not tell Sgt Hurley that Mr Clay had a mental problem. Mr Clay apparently staggered, or lunged towards Sgt Hurley, and Sgt Hurley slapped him – Mr Clay alleges punched him – so hard that he was propelled, about a metre, hard up against a wall.
Sgt Hurley agreed that Mr Clay had not actually hit him, although he said he thought Mr Clay was trying to head butt him. D Sgt Robinson claimed that Mr Clay had managed to hit Sgt Hurley before Sgt Hurley slapped Mr Clay, with considerable force.
Conduct of Investigations into 'Significant Incidents' based on my understanding from listening to cross-examination of many witnesses 27 Feb – 3rd March.
1. There were several significant incidents in which Sgt Hurley was involved from May 2004 to 19 November 2004. All were investigated by a friend and colleague on Palm Island, D Sgt Darren Robinson, on the instructions of superior officers.
2. The investigations were not treated as important. They were conducted in an unhurried and unprofessional manner: witnesses were not interviewed for weeks, if at all, and relevant medical histories were not followed up. Moreover, D Sgt Robinson admitted to having a biased assumption that Sgt Hurley had always told him the truth and that contrary evidence was therefore just wrong.
3. The Senior Officer to Sgt Hurley when he was on Palm, District Inspector Stohseldt, was directly above Sgt Hurley and responsible for overseeing his discharge of his duties. He was responsible, for example, for Sgt Hurley’s annual performance review. This Inspector knew of an investigation into the Barbara Pilot incident but did not ask about the results of the investigation until October 2005, 1 year and 5 months after the incident. On repeated questioning, Inspector Stohseldt, did not think that he needed to know the result of the investigation as other senior officers were in charge of overseeing it.
4. Senior officers have consistently appointed inappropriate police officers to investigate Significant Incidents on Palm Island. In all the incidents in question, including the death of Mulrunji, D Sgt Robinson was appointed investigating officer. He was a personal friend of Sgt Hurley and a colleague in a small island community.
D Sgt Robinson told the court that he did not think this appropriate and had even occasionally protested to higher officers but he had been ordered to do the investigation anyway. D Sgt Robinson told the Court that he was once ordered to investigate himself, as he had been the arresting officer, the custodial officer and was then ordered to be the investigating officer!
Unsurprisingly, all investigations ended with conclusions that lead to no further action and no charges being laid against any police officer.
The arrest of Mulrunji
It was very hard to follow the thread of the evidence about this and the fact that the Australian and Courier Mail reports differed highlights this. This is what I understood…
Although several newspaper reports said he was arrested for drunkenness, my understanding was that Sgt Hurley agreed that Mulrunji was not very drunk and was definitely coherent. Sgt Hurley and Police Liaison Officer Lloyd Bengaroo had just arrested another man, Patrick Bramwell. Mulrunji was singing the lyrics of a popular song, something about ‘let the dogs out’. Sgt Hurley felt that PLO Bengaroo was offended by this, and one of them told Mulrunji to go away. Mulrunji obeyed the order and started walking away from the police car. As he went, he called out ‘you fucking cunts’. Sgt Hurley then arrested him for being a public nuisance.
Sgt Hurley explained that he considered Mulrunji was being a public nuisance because Sgt Hurley felt that PLO Bengaroo was offended and that Mulrunji ‘deserved’ to be put in the cells.
Sgt Hurley agreed that the language was not uncommon in the community but still felt that PLO Bengaroo was offended so that Mulrunji was committing a public nuisance.
When cross-examined about this, Sgt Hurley insisted that he was justified in arresting Mulrunji. Counsel for Human Rights Commission, J Hunyour, suggested that in fact, Sgt Hurley had breached the Recommendations of the Deaths in Custody Report and also the Minor Offences Act. I’m could not verify the correct name of this act .Mulrunji could have been served a Notice to Appear to answer the charge of being a public nuisance, and he would probably still be alive today.
Getting Mulrunji to the cells and events up to his death
On the basis of evidence given so far to the inquest, none of the parties challenged the view that Mulrunji’s death was caused either accidentally by “collision” between him and Sergeant Hurley, or “by the application of deliberate force” by Sergeant Hurley to Mulrunji Doomadgee.
The evidence of Mrs Sibley, a respected local resident, was that Mulrunji punched Sgt Hurley as he was let out of the police van and Sgt Hurley punched him back. Sgt Hurley denied this categorically: Mr Callaghan, for the Doomadgee family, said that Sgt Hurley must be lying. Sgt Hurley continued to deny it steadily and forcefully.
You could have heard a pin drop during this cross examination session.
Mr Callagahan (counsel for the Doomagee family) quoted evidence from Constable Speldman, who had been serving on Palm Island at the time, that Sgt Hurley yelled abusively at Mulrunji. Sgt Hurley denied it. As they entered the police station, the two men were struggling with each other; both fell heavily and hard. There was a sudden change in Mulrunji’s behaviour. He had been protesting, punching, struggling: then, in a moment he became silent and limp, and was dragged into the cell.
Sgt Hurley denied that Mulrunji was clearly injured – Mr Callaghan suggested that it should have been obvious because of the change in his behaviour.
Sgt Hurley agreed that when Mulrunji was put into the cells, he was not asked the usual Health Questions. Sgt Hurley just ticked them all as ok, even though Mulrunji had changed significantly in his actions and had had to be dragged into the cell. Sgt Hurley did not see any reason to check Mulrunji more carefully after the significant change in his actions after the fall. Sgt Hurley has had no training in how to check people’s health in custody nor for signs of self-harm etc.
Sgt Hurley said that he went into the cell to check on Patrick Bramwell, who was arrested just before Mulrunji, because Patrick did not appear to have moved, he was not particularly checking on Mulrunji. The video shows that Sgt Hurley’s visit to the cell to check on the two inmates lasted 6 seconds only: for 3 seconds he appears to be looking at Mulrunji and for only 1 second to be looking at Patrick. Sgt Hurley did not speak to Mulrunji nor wake him to check on his health status verbally.
Conduct of the investigation after the death of Mulrunji
After the death was reported to senior officers, an immediate investigation was ordered and D Sgt Robinson, Inspectors Hickey and Webber were appointed.
In spite of the presence of other police officers on Palm and the fact that he was involved in the inquiry, it was Sgt Hurley who picked up the other investigating officers at the airport. He took them back to his own house, where D Sgt Robinson cooked dinner and they had a few friendly beers together.
The next day, D Sgt Robinson was locating witnesses and taking statements. He told the Court that he had not read the Recommendations of the Deaths in Custody Report and did not know that the area should be treated as a crime scene.
Roy Bramwell was sitting in the police station when Sgt Hurley pulled Mulrunji into the hallway. Roy Bramwell’s statement said he saw Sgt Hurley’s ‘elbow moving up and down’ as though Sgt Hurley was hitting Mulrunji on the ground.
In the re-enactment Sgt Hurley said it was a ‘picking-up’ motion. There was a suggestion, which Sgt Hurley denied, that D Sgt Robinson had pre-warned him of Roy Bramwell’s statement…
There was conflicting evidence from Sgts Hurley and Robinson about whether Sgt Hurley was being kept apart from other witnesses. D Sgt Robinson did not remember the injury on Mulrunji’s right eye being discussed in the inquiry, nor was Sgt Hurley ever asked the question: ‘Did you hit Cameron Doomadgee?’
The autopsy found a significant injury on Mulrunji’s right eye. It was not mentioned in the Health report and both Patrick and Roy Bramwell said they had not seen it on Mulrunji’s face as he came into the police station.
During cross-examination D Sgt Robinson repeatedly said that he was not clear what the boundaries were for an internal investigation but agreed he had made little effort to clarify this.
After the Resumed Inquest but before the Verdict: 4 March onwards
It will now take approximately 2 weeks to prepare transcripts of the proceedings, then the various legal teams prepare submissions based on the evidence and a day will be appointed to hear the legal teams speak to the submissions. Then the Coroner thinks about it all and delivers her verdict. The Palm Community wants it delivered on Palm.
My Conclusions after attending the Inquest
1. Sgt Hurley perceived himself as having a good relationship with the community, but this perception was not shared by community members, nor could I see it substantiated during the inquest.
Sgt Hurley wanted to go to Palm. He is confident about his actions there and believes that he had a good, positive relationship with the community. He has had very little training from the Police force about cultural matters and says, correctly, that each community is different, and so general training is not very appropriate.
His view of his relations with the Palm Island community was strongly disagreed with by the community members present in Court during the Inquest hearings I attended.
In spite of his interest in Aboriginal affairs, Sgt Hurley had not read the Deaths in Custody Report nor made himself familiar with the Recommendations. He also was unaware of the importance of Acts dealing with Minor Offences, which apparently strongly recommend that arrest leading to imprisonment should be a last resort. He had not ‘got round to’ doing a course on CPR, which would have been available through the Palm Island Ambulance Service and could be very important given the number of people with mental health problems, drug and alcohol problems and general health problems who spent time in the police cells.
Sgt Hurley’s attitude to people on Palm may be illustrated by his conduct as detailed in court. He did not help Ms Pilot when she shouted that he had run over her foot – he left a severely injured woman and drove off. He did not act with normal good manners when entering Neville Bonner’s bedroom, by asking someone to wake Mr Bonner and explain his presence. His “instinctive reaction” when Douglas Clay staggered or lunged towards him was to hit Mr Clay, hard.
Sgt Hurley is confident that he has behaved correctly in all the incidents mentioned.
2. Every aspect of Mulrunji’s arrest, time in the cells and death appears to have been mishandled, including the investigation and treatment of Sgt Hurley after the death.
In the matter of Mulrunji’s death: first he need not have been arrested in the first place. He could have been summonsed.
If injured in a fall he should have been given better care; the hospital is nearby. If Mulrunji was assaulted, that is a criminal act and the assailant should be charged.
After the death, Sgt Hurley should have been kept separate from the witnesses and the investigating officers until after proper statements had been taken.
If it had been Sgt Hurley who had died, Mulrunji would certainly have been arrested and charged. Sgt Hurley has merely been transferred to the Gold Coast.
3. Police officers working on Palm Island are not familiar with, and do not follow, key recommendations about working in this Indigenous Community.
Sgt Hurley’s superior officers appear not to have ensured that he was offered training about Indigenous culture, particularly for the specific community in which he was the Officer in Charge. Nor did his superior officers ensure that he was familiar with the Recommendations of the Deaths in Custody Report, nor the Acts dealing with Minor Offences .
Senior officers also did not appear to be interested in the results of investigations in incidents, noted as Significant Incidents by the police themselves.
All of this suggests that there is little pressure from the police hierarchy for the ‘street police’ to take the recommendations into serious consideration on the beat.
The conduct of the investigations on Palm, as already detailed above, cannot lead to any confidence in the effectiveness and impartiality of the investigations. It is not surprising that people do not make formal complaints if they feel that it is pointless.
4. Tensions between police officers and the Palm Island Community are inevitable in this situation.
How can the Palm Island Community and the police force live in harmony in these circumstances? The Palm Island Community cannot have any faith in the integrity of investigations into allegations of police misconduct, when they see friends doing the investigations, see that witnesses are not being interviewed or, that when they are interviewed they are sometimes being lead to give answers that the investigator wants to hear.
What I think needs to be done.
- · It is time to change the power balance on Palm Island. It is time for a ‘grass-roots’ approach: the ‘top-down’ approach of the past 100 years has consistently failed.
- · The people of Palm, through their Elders, the Palm Island Council, and other community groups, are the people who should be deciding what their vision and objectives are for their island.
- · The Council, together with the Elders’ Council and other community groups must be sufficiently resourced to be able to put forward the islanders’ priorities with measurable goals and timelines. Then State and Commonwealth government departments can work with the Council to negotiate common agreed objectives and to agree on how to finance the agreed objectives. There must be achievement targets and accountability throughout.
- · We all need to encourage respect and cooperation between all the groups involved: state and federal government politicians and bureaucrats working together with Palm islanders, Palm Native Title holders and communities on the mainland with ties to Palm.
- Research into current police training re Indigenous culture and communities.
- Find out how police investigations are meant to be carried out so that we can see if the problem is mainly with the regulations or with how they are carried out and improve this.
- Ask other former DOGIT Communities (Deeds Of Grants In Trust Communities, i.e. former Aboriginal missions, reserves, etc) what their ideas are to see if the problems are similar in their communities…
- Develop awareness amongst the wider community that this Inquest is very important.
When the Coroner’s verdict is announced:
The verdict may say that a charge can be laid against someone, and may also include recommendations for change. Or it may say that there is not sufficient evidence of wrongdoing to warrant any charges….
The Inquest cannot change the root causes of the problems on Palm Island. We can cooperate to improve the relationship between islanders and the police. However, unless the power balance changes so that the Islanders own the agenda and an attitude of mutual respect is insisted on, nothing will improve.
Please contact me if you think you can help with any of this.