On Monday it was announced that the twenty-two Queensland police officers involved in Palm Island’s November 26 2004 riot would receive bravery awards. No doubt it was terrifying to wear a police uniform on the island that day. Nineteen police officers found themselves barricaded in the police barracks as locals threw rocks and mangos and steel pickets over the cyclone wire fence, yelling, “We are going to burn you! Kill the c-nts, the Captain Cook c-nts!”

Over the road the police station was ablaze, as was the house of Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley. A week earlier, Hurley had locked up Cameron Doomadgee for swearing, and left him to die with injuries consistent with a victim of a car or plane crash. Nevertheless that morning the State Coroner had announced Doomadgee’s death was the result of a fall. This riot was both a protest and payback.

A local plumber, Lex Wotton, had given the police an hour to get off the island. The officers passed around a mobile phone and rang their wives to say goodbye, then they counted their bullets. One man took a BBQ lid to use as a shield, another a cricket bat, someone else broke billiard cues in two and handed the pieces to his colleagues for protection. The police stalled for time until helicopters and planes with reinforcements arrived. Seeing they had no hope, the rioters went home and in the end no one was seriously hurt.

That night, crack police squads with tasers and other weaponry went from house to house arresting those identified as rioters. Pregnant women and children were made to lie on the floor while the laser lights of police rifles played over their faces. Nineteen men were flown off the island — one for each cop trapped in the barracks — and their bail conditions banned them from returning home.

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Eighteen months later, most of the officers who served on that day filed Victim Impact Statements. (The first step towards receiving compensation.) These documents are revealing — and disturbing — for their frank descriptions of racial fear and loathing. One officer wrote that his children no longer played sport on the weekend because they didn’t want to mix with Aboriginal kids. Another wrote: “I do not trust indigenous people for fear of violence…if they can try to burn my body, they will burn and hurt my loved ones.” Another wrote that he stayed up all night guarding his infant son because he was scared Palm Islanders would find his house and attack him. More than one officer claimed that they wanted vengeance: “Right or wrong,” one said, “I have harboured unhealthy desires to seek revenge which often consume all my thoughts.”

If payback was a common desire then surely the police have now had their fill. In June 2007, Senior Sergeant Hurley, despite having been found responsible for Doomadgee’s death by the Queensland Deputy State Coroner, was acquitted of manslaughter in three hours by an all white Townsville jury. By contrast, last week Lex Wotton was found guilty of rioting with destruction — a crime which carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.

One of the officers who will soon be able to look at the bravery award on his mantelpiece and contemplate his courage and sacrifice will be Detective Sergeant Darren Robinson. Hurley’s close friend, Robinson flew to Palm Island the day of Doomadgee’s death to investigate the matter. He had previously investigated Hurley’s behaviour, including allegations that the Senior Sergeant had run over a woman’s foot and left her lying on the ground. Despite the woman requiring surgery, Robinson declared her claims were “fictitious”.

The Crime and Misconduct Commission has since recommended the Queensland Police Service consider disciplinary action over the incident, although none has been taken. The Police Service is also unlikely to take action against the officers involved in the investigation of Cameron Doomadgee’s death, despite the Deputy Coroner’s findings of wilful incompetence.

Doomadgee’s death triggered a kind of war — with Hurley becoming a battle martyr not only for cops who feel they are victims, but for anyone who believes blacks get too much from the system. At every juncture, the Police Service’s handling of the case has shown the vast gulf between physical bravery and moral bravery. Next week, while the police hold their awards ceremony in Townsville, over the water on Palm Island the Aboriginal Council might consider giving their own series of awards for hypocrisy, humbug, and hubris.

Chloe Hooper is the author of The Tall Man, published by Penguin.