FIFTEEN years after the royal commission, the appalling handling of the death in custody of Mulrunji Doomadgee has reignited controversy over policing in indigenous communities. The Palm Island police station was destroyed in the riots following his death in 2004.
In the past week there has been rioting against police in two other remote indigenous communities. In Aurukun on Queensland’s Cape York, up to 300 people are reported to have attacked the police station and patrol cars after an Aboriginal man claimed he was assaulted in police custody.
In Maningrida in Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory, more than 100 people reportedly trashed the police station after an Aboriginal man was arrested in an early-morning police search of a home.
Remote communities are angry and the need for change is increasingly pressing. Policing is one area that needs urgent rethinking and it cuts both ways.
There must be change on the policing side. A death in custody should be investigated thoroughly. Protecting one officer from the consequences of his actions, whatever those actions were, will only bring reprobation on the entire police service and mistrust on the Queensland justice system. At the very least, the officers who compromised the investigation into Doomadgee’s death should face serious disciplinary action.
The culture of policing needs to change. Experienced officers need to be posted to the Palm Island community for extended periods of time. The temporary rostering of officers for as little as one month does not allow for the nurturing of important community relationships. In the longer term, education on Palm Island needs urgent improvement so that the next generation of school leavers will have the skills to join the police service themselves. Policing will be more successful when built on community consensus, rather than imposed from outside.
In the meantime, numerous reports – including the Cape York Justice Study in 2001, the Palm Island Select Committee report in 2005 and the Palm Island Future Directions report in 2006 – have recommended community policing measures.
The evaluation of the Queensland Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander police trial in the Yarrabah, Badu Island and Woorabinda communities found that it was sufficiently successful to warrant permanent implementation, while identifying areas for improvement. The program, which employs and trains unsworn indigenous officers, should be extended to Palm Island without further bureaucratic ado.
There must also be change on the community side. No matter how angry people are about a miscarriage of justice or the arrest of a friend or relative, verbally abusing police officers or rioting is not the answer.
Palm Islanders have every reason to be frustrated at their treatment by the Queensland Government and their terrible standard of living. There is little prospect of employment and no opportunity for property ownership or small business. But destroying police stations – one of the bastions of civil society – will not bring justice, will not get another person a house or a job, and will not provide another child with a good education.
The rule of law is essential in a civilised society. The rule of law cannot tolerate compromised police investigations or community rioting. Police must exercise their discretion appropriately and the community must respect the thin blue line.
Community policing is a first step to improve law and order on Palm Island. But we can do more.
We need to continue to look for ways to reduce the toll of alcohol on indigenous communities and to recognise the role of alcohol in high indigenous incarceration rates. Only last year the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research released its findings that the three strongest predictors of indigenous imprisonment are, in order, substance abuse, welfare, and high-risk alcohol use. The only factor in their prediction model that reduced the risk of imprisonment was completing a Year 12 education.
More broadly, we need to change the government policies that are preventing Aboriginal Australians from sharing in economic and social prosperity. Passive welfare and a lack of private property rights have not helped remote communities. Adults need employment and business opportunities. Children need successful education initiatives, such as “scaffolding literacy”, that will improve school attendance and achievement by providing an educational experience that no child wants to miss out on.
Tackling the issues facing Palm Island – or Aurukun and Maningrida, for that matter – should not end with Laurence Street’s review of the decision of the Director of Public Prosecutions not to prosecute Sergeant Chris Hurley for Doomadgee’s death. The review, and any subsequent prosecution, must close this chapter and allow the community and police to open a new chapter together.
Kirsten Storry is a policy analyst on the indigenous affairs research program at the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney.
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