Former Queensland police officer Chris Hurley was in court again this week.
The 49-year-old ex-senior sergeant is no stranger to the courtroom. In February this year, he pleaded guilty to assaulting a female police officer in a Gold Coast shopping centre twelve months earlier.
But Hurley’s career in the force really came to a halt in December last year, after he was found guilty of assaulting Luke Cole during a roadside arrest in November 2013, when he unjustifiably put the driver in a choke hold.
At the time of his hearing for that offence, Hurley was already suspended without pay due to a string of charges against him. He has since taken “medical retirement”.
However, if one takes a closer look at Hurley’s police career – or rather the times he’s been on the wrong side of the law – what one finds is an example of the systemic racism that pervades the Queensland police service, and on a broader scale, many other Australian institutions.
The Palm Island tragedy
On 19 November 2004, Mr Doomadgee – or Mulrunji – died in custody at Palm Island police station.
The 36-year-old Indigenous man had been arrested by sergeant Hurley for allegedly being drunk and disorderly. One hour after being taken into custody, Mr Doomadgee was dead.
During the ensuing criminal trial, Hurley claimed Mr Doomadgee had fallen, after the two had scuffled. The prosecution had alleged the sergeant kneed the detained man in the stomach, causing serious damage to his liver.
The pathologist who conducted the post-mortem compared Mr Doomadgee’s injuries to those of plane crash victims. He suffered broken ribs, a ruptured spleen and his liver was so damaged it was almost split in two across his spine.
In June 2007, Chris Hurley was acquitted by an all-white jury of the manslaughter of Cameron Doomadgee.
Less than a month after Mr Doomadgee’s death, Hurley was transferred to work on the Gold Coast.
He even received a $100,000 compensation payment after his house was burnt down during the unrest on Palm Island following the news of the autopsy results.
And therein lies the inherent racism in the system. An Indigenous man dies in custody and an officer is acquitted of manslaughter by an all-white jury, despite what seemed to be overwhelming evidence of guilt.
But now, that very same policeman’s career is in tatters after being convicted of the relatively minor assault of an Anglo Australian man.
Blatant discrimination revealed
Due to the unrest that broke out on the island, Lex Wotton, a Palm Island local, was charged with inciting a riot and sentenced to six years in prison in September 2008. He served 19 months before being released on parole.
In 2014, Mr Wotton launched a class action against the Queensland government over the racially discriminatory way it handled the death of Mr Doomadgee, as well as the subsequent unrest on the island.
According to Wotton’s lawyers, the police had contravened section 9(1) of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 by conducting themselves differently during the unrest because they were dealing with an Aboriginal community.
In December last year, the Federal Court found that Queensland police had indeed acted with unlawful discrimination when failing to suspend Sergeant Hurley after Mr Doomadgee’s death.
The court also found there was a “disproportionate show of force” by police on the protesting Aboriginal community.
“Paternalism and racism”
But it didn’t stop there. The Palaszczuk Government, along with Queensland police, decided to file an appeal against the landmark Federal Court decision, as they claimed there was not enough evidence to support it.
Central Queensland University professor Gracelyn Smallwood launched a successful campaign against the government’s appeal in February. Her online petition garnered close to 18,000 signatures and led politicians to drop the appeal.
As for the example of Hurley’s career, Ms Smallwood said it reveals the “paternalism and racism” that’s inherent not only in the Australian criminal justice system, but throughout the whole of Australian society.
“It was so blatant and open what happened to our brother on Palm Island,” the professor told Sydney Criminal Lawyers®. And Hurley “got a smack on the hand and then a promotion.”
She added that our nation has “a long way to go in terms of justice.”
Discrimination at every level
“There is no doubt that Australia is still a very racist country,” the Birrigubba elder said. “We’re three percent of the population and we’re fourteen times more likely to be locked up in prison.”
Indeed, the 2016 Census figures reveal that there were 649,171 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the country, which accounts for just 2.8 percent of the population. However, in June 2016, there were 10,596 Indigenous prisoners in Australia, which is 27 percent of the adult prisoner population.
“And a lot of our people are not there for very violent crimes,” Ms Smallwood continued. “They’re there for the unresolved grief, loss and trauma of colonisation.”
The professor of nursing and midwifery also pointed out that when it came to the Howard government implementing “special measures” in remote Aboriginal communities during the initial stages of the Northern Territory Intervention, the Racial Discrimination Act actually had to be suspended.
Ms Smallwood also questioned the reasoning behind the alcohol management plan that was implemented as part of the Intervention. After two years of the emergency measures, it was found that alcohol-related crime had risen by 34 percent, and this was thought to be because possession had become illegal.
“People, like myself, warned the government that prohibition has never worked anywhere in the world,” Ms Smallwood said over the phone from Palm Island. “Why would it work on communities that are suffering all the dysfunctions of… colonisation?”
Justice on the horizon
Despite all that has occurred, Ms Smallwood believes change is coming. Proof of this is that the majority of people who signed her petition against the state government’s attempt to overturn the Federal Court ruling that authorities had acted with extreme racism were non-Indigenous.
For the professor, it’s all about recounting the truth of what has occurred on our continent.
“Once the true history of this country is told, we can reconcile. I’m very optimistic that will happen.” In relation the success of the campaign, Ms Smallwood remarked, “So that was a great outcome. But we’ve got to keep speaking out.”
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Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He has a focus on human rights issues, encroachments on civil liberties, drug law reform, gender diversity and First Nations rights. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, he wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.