Phil Dickie, whose Courier-Mail articles into Queensland police corruption helped prompt the Fitzgerald Inquiry and who now lives in Geneva, comments on the recent decision not to press charges against Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley over the death in custody of Palm Island resident Mulrunji Doomadgee:  I’m disappointed — but not very surprised — at the DPP’s decision. What could be on display here is the superiority of the investigative over the adversarial justice systems.  The coroner is charged with finding out what happened, which is how many European courts conduct themselves. The DPP operates in the adversarial system – a sort of evolved trial by combat employing champions – in a beyond-all-possible-doubt context. I gather she has decided she couldn’t charge because there was a minimal chance of winning.
When I worked at the Criminal Justice Commission in its early days there was obviously a considerable backlog of cases from the pre-Fitzgerald days of unrestrained police brutality. It wasn’t possible to lay charges in the majority of cases for a variety of reasons – lack of medical evidence, lack of witnesses, or only having police witnesses with the same story of “we were nowhere near him when he fell violently and repeatedly on the floor” and so on.
The most effective thing we could do was keep a database — and it was surprising how the same officer’s names kept coming up again and again and how disproportionately often Aboriginal males were the victims. We could pressure for transfers where we couldn’t charge and we could ensure better supervision and surveillance of watch-houses and better investigation of incidents. We started to break down the culture where police would automatically back each other up and give we could give institutional support to the officers – often female – who came forward.
It was hard work but it was starting to yield dividends. But I don’t think it was kept up with the necessary intensity. Powers of investigation of so called “minor” incidents went back to the police, the police union went back to its bad old habits (I noted some highly inappropriate comments about the coroner in the Palm Island case), and the government set about beating up the CJC on a range of issues.  The culture of intolerance to brutality we were trying to build in the police seems to have lapsed towards a regrettable degree of tolerance. My observations from before I left and even in observing from a distance were that instances of questionable police behaviour seemed to be markedly rising.

Peter Fray

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