Police racism: Stop deaths in custody!

Friday, October 6, 2006 - 10:00

In a damning report released on September 27, Queensland's acting state coroner, Christine Clements, has criticised the initial investigation into the 2004 Palm Island death in custody of Mulrunji, saying that it failed to meet appropriate guidelines. Clements also found that Senior Sergeant Christopher Hurley caused Mulrunji's death and accused the police of failing to investigate his death fully.

Mulrunji, 36, was found dead in his cell at around 11am on November 19, 2004.

Since the release of the report, Queensland's police union, police commissioner and police minister have tried to disparage its findings. Clements' recommendations have now gone to Leanne Clare, Queensland's Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), to decide whether charges will be laid.

The case and its consequences were addressed by Murri activist and Socialist Alliance leader Sam Watson at a Socialist Alliance meeting in Brisbane on October 4. The following is abridged from his presentation.

***

Palm Island in 2004 was a typical remote Murri community, with enormous social problems. Unemployment has always been around 90-95%, housing is appalling, as is access to schooling and health care. It is just an appalling place in the way of infrastructure.

On this Saturday morning, our brother Mulrunji was walking home. He had just done his crab pots. He'd had a bit of a charge, but he wasn't intoxicated.

There were two coppers out and about. An Aboriginal copper named Lloyd Bengaroo and this senior sergeant Chris Hurley were in this house attending to a domestic situation. Mulrunji apparently made some comment to the black liaison officer to the effect, "Why are you hassling other Aboriginal people?". He wasn't violent or stand overish.

None of the coppers on the island knew him because he had no history of being in the lockup or causing any problems, so he just kept walking. Hurley took affront at that and pursued him.

Independent witnesses attest that Hurley used an enormous amount of force to subdue Mulrunji and throw him into the police van. Mulrunji was then transported to the watch-house.

Again we have black witnesses and police witnesses. The Aboriginal witnesses gave strong evidence about the degree of force Hurley used to remove Mulrunji from the police wagon and get him into the watch-house. At one point, Mulrunji was knocked to the ground and Hurley stood over him and applied full body blows.

Hurley is a large bloke, over six feet tall and 23-26 stone. He is well used to dishing out corporal punishment because he has a lengthy background of policing in remote Aboriginal communities. There have been a number of situations where it is alleged that he assaulted Aboriginal people, but nothing has been taken through to a conclusion.

This assault on Mulrunji went on for some time and he was then dragged into the cell and thrown onto the floor. His condition wasn't checked.

The young police officer in the watch-house went in about 45 minutes later then came back out and said, "We've got trouble. He's very cold, he's clammy, he's not breathing. Something bad has happened."

They called the ambulance; it took 13 minutes to get there. The ambulance officers said it was no use attempting resuscitation because Mulrunji was dead. The family came up when they saw the ambulance come but they were sent away. The coppers said everything was OK.

@subh = Lies

The police rang Townsville for guidance. They then locked the situation down, denied access to any other person and cooked up their stories about what had happened.

Their story was that the injuries Mulrunji died from were caused by him stumbling, drunk, on the front steps of the watch-house. That was it; no assault ever happened.

Two senior officers from Townsville came over that night. Hurley picked them up at the airport, showed them the point of arrest and the watch-house, then they went for a beer and a feed at Hurley's place. There was no distance between Hurley and the investigating police, even though a death in custody had occurred and they were supposed to immediately shift into the protocols laid down by the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and the [Queensland] Crime and Misconduct Commission. Most of these two officers' time on the island was spent in Hurley's company.

In the meantime, the family and Palm community had found out that Mulrunji was dead. There was confusion and a lot of hurt.

The body was taken to the hospital and placed in the morgue. The chief medical officer from Townsville undertook an autopsy. Six days later, the autopsy report revealed that Mulrunji had suffered massive trauma to the abdomen. He also had four broken ribs, a burst spleen and his liver had been severed in two. The forensic pathologist said it would have taken an enormous amount of force to have caused those injuries.

The community reacted. The police station was burned down, but some allege that only the police could have lit the fire, which was started in the watch-house room where Hurley and Mulrunji's clothing had been stored. The DNA evidence was destroyed.

The local coppers were evacuated and the crack public order squad came out with weapons to subdue the "rampaging natives". They went berserk through the community, terrorising people for days. They identified the main leaders and put them under lock and key. Those coppers are still over there on Palm.

The family and the community requested a second autopsy. It confirmed the findings of the first and the body was finally buried.

At that time, Mulrunji's mother, already ill, passed away because of the trauma she had been through. Then, five weeks ago, Mulrunji's only child, just 17 years old and so traumatised and despairing of ever achieving justice for his father, committed suicide on Palm. Three generations of one family have been buried because of this copper's murderous assault.

Hurley was transferred to Surfers Paradise, a plum police posting. He was also given a rise in rank and a pay rise.

After the first inquiry was closed without handing down any findings, Clements launched the second inquiry and delivered 40 findings and recommendations.

Clements found that Mulrunji had died in the police watch-house from substantial injuries and these injuries were sustained from an assault by Hurley.

The police union has attempted to stage-manage the entire process from day one. It tried to intimidate the Aboriginal witnesses, but they refused to be shaken by the battery of top police lawyers. They knew what they had seen and heard.

There needs to be pressure maintained on the Beattie government. Even when the findings came down, the police commissioner and the police minister refused to suspend or sack Hurley. They merely moved him from active duty to desk duty.

The glaring fact that emerged from the Clements' inquiry is that Mulrunji committed no crime. There was no reason why he should have been detained, arrested or taken to the watch-house.

The coppers on Palm were questioned at length during both inquiries about their knowledge of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. They said time after time that they weren't aware of the commission, that they didn't know what the recommendations stated. This is bullshit because the video surveillance equipment in the Palm Island watch-house was paid for by money from the commission.

That surveillance equipment was turned off when Mulrunji entered the watch-house and only resumed at the point when Mulrunji's body was on the floor. No copper has owned up to turning off that camera. If anything, the 139 royal commission recommendations have shown the police how to avoid prosecution.

@subh = Support

The Aboriginal community in Brisbane is in daily contact with the mob on Palm. I have blood relatives on Palm. We're determined to up the stakes.

Pressure needs to be maintained on the Beattie government to identify Hurley's crimes and immediately sack him. We don't want this thug wearing a police uniform and being in a position to kill someone else.

The Queensland government owes the Palm Island community an enormous amount. It needs to be held accountable for the way it has consistently underfunded and under-resourced Aboriginal communities like Palm Island.

But Palm Island people can't do it by themselves; they need our support and the Brisbane Murri community will certainly give them that.

Time after time we have gone into inquiries and the system has conspired against us and delivered no outcomes. But in this case there is enough evidence for a court to make a criminal finding against the police officer responsible.

We are going to do some serious political business over the next period and we're looking to other groups across our community, other comrades, to stand with us and march with us.

We're also going to demand that any preliminary hearings take place where the crime happened. Let Chris Hurley face his day of judgement before the Palm Island community.

[The full text of Sam Watson's talk is available at Leftcast, <><http://leftcast.blogspot.com>. The state coroner's report is available at << http://www.justice.qld.gov.au/courts/coroner/findings/mulrunjiA HREF="mailto:270906.doc">><270906.doc>.]

From GLW issue 686

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