A culture of denial and inertia

Hiding the ineptness of his officers was the police commissioner's major concern

THE first signs of panic and an absence of leadership in the Queensland Police Service came on November 27, 2004, the day after Palm Islanders had rioted and burnt the police station and courthouse.
Police Commissioner Bob Atkinson held a press conference in Townsville where he said nobody on either side -- the police or the rioters -- had been injured.
But the day before, just after the buildings burnt, a senior police officer had taken it on himself to telephone Lavarack air force barracks in Townsville and speak to an officer in charge of the Blackhawk helicopter regiment.
He explained about the riot and requested that the gunships with armed soldiers be deployed on the island.
His request was dismissed out of hand, and he was told he was stupid to make such a call because the air force could be used only in wartime, and only with the approval of the Defence Minister and-or the Prime Minister.
Then throughout the evening of November 27, police in full riot gear and balaclavas, armed with semi-automatic rifles, Glock pistols and Tasers, stormed through the community, bursting into homes and arresting people they suspected were involved in arson.
Children were threatened, had guns pointed at them, were ordered to lie on the floor and ground, and doors were kicked in.
The state school was taken over and obviously closed to students and teachers, and the only store on the island was closed with the food barge also stopped from delivering urgent supplies, including milk and baby food.
Other Aboriginal communities including Yarrabah near Cairns took it on themselves to get food supplies to the island.
It was madness, and when revealed in the cold light of day, no police officer was ever brought to account over the incidents because none could be identified.
It was described at the time by Palm Islander Bradley Foster as the Queensland police practising their ``terrorism training on unarmed, sleeping islanders''.
Why Atkinson is now in the frame is the result of him not taking charge from the start, when Mulrunji Doomadgee was found dead in his cell on November 19, 2004. And that came about because the arresting officer, Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley did not tell other officers that there had been a ``violent incident'' before Mulrunji was put in the cell.
Two subsequent coronial inquiries have established that Hurley fell on Mulrunji on the concrete floor of the Palm Island police station, and that horrific, fatal injuries resulted: Mulrunji's liver was torn in two. The finding by coroner Brian Hine last month was that Hurley's actions caused the injuries, but the coroner was unable to establish whether they were inflicted accidentally or deliberately. Senior police intimately involved with the initial investigation into Mulrunji's death in custody have told me they believed it was ``just another case of a drunk being found dead in a cell''.
Had Hurley told them about the ``violent incident'', perhaps their approach would not have been so casual.
Atkinson has been aware since early in the piece that this initial investigation did not meet the standards required, by set operational procedures or community expectation.
But he has consistently held the line that police acted appropriately. To make his point, he hand-picked two police ethical standards officers, Acting Superintendent Michael McKay and Inspector Robert Gee, to review the shoddy initial investigation.
These two officers, according to the Crime and Misconduct Commission report tabled yesterday, ``provided detailed briefings over an extended period of time to the Commissioner of Police''. So Atkinson was being kept up to date with their findings.
So slipshod was the review that the two officers did not interview Hurley, or a witness who was at the police station when Mulrunji was brought in, Roy Bramwell. Bramwell had previously given a statement that he saw Hurley punching the prisoner shortly before he died.
Despite being in possession of all this information, and being consistently prodded by the media and lawyers representing the Doomadgee family to reveal the results of the various inquiries into the initial police investigation, Atkinson sat on his hands. Indeed, he went further, appealing to the CMC not to publish the findings of failings of his police officers. Throughout, the anguish of the Doomadgee family on Palm Island was being compounded.
What was apparently most important was that the inept and slovenly cover-up by police of their own failings not be brought into the public spotlight.
The Australian has run more than 400 stories on the death of Mulrunji, and maintained from day one the police were evading the truth, protecting their own, and most shamefully, covering up the circumstances surrounding the violent death of an innocent man.
Atkinson, 62, has been a career police officer. He was sworn in 41 years ago and his career included 20 years as a detective. As well, he was heavily involved in the post-Fitzgerald change management of the police service. His reputation as incorruptible is soundly based and beyond question.
However, his strength of leadership, particularly in the face of political pressure, is a different issue. Invariably, throughout his time as Queensland's top cop, when critical or controversial incidents involving police have occurred, his immediate reaction has been to defend the thin blue line.
And he has shown little willingness to stand up to a series of ministers who have held the police portfolio, including Tony McGrady and Judy Spence.
Spence was police minister when Mulrunji died, and her acquiescence to the police union is well documented. She even joined a union-organised march against her own government.
And whenever controversial incidents have required a police minister to front the media, invariably Atkinson has been required to be at his or her side.
Many in his own membership see him as being too close to, or too compliant with, the Labor government, and his rather irreverent nickname among rank and file is ``the Labor member for Roma Street'' (the address of police headquarters).
CMC chairman Martin Moynihan, in releasing the agency's report yesterday, says he is ``looking to the Police Commissioner to acknowledge the flawed and unacceptable conduct of the officers involved in both the initial police investigation [into the death in custody] and the QPS review''.
``He must step up, take strong decisive action and restore the confidence of the public and its own members in the police service,'' Moynihan says.
``If the CMC is not satisfied with the Commissioner's intended course of action, then the CMC will assume responsibility for the matter and apply to the Queensland Civil and Administrative Tribunal to commence disciplinary proceedings.''
He says that both police investigations suggest there is a belief within the police service that the best way to protect the reputation of the QPS is to turn a blind eye to actions of their colleagues.
``The investigations were characterised by double standards and an unwillingness to publicly acknowledge failings on the part of the police,'' Moynihan says.
Then, most damningly, he adds:
``The Police Commissioner has tolerated these self-protecting aspects of the culture and must be held accountable for the flawed Palm Island review. He supported and defended the police review process including the spirit and intent of the findings.
``This attitude is eroding public confidence as well as debilitating the morale of good officers and unfairly tarnishing them.''
Atkinson's tolerance of some substandard police practices does not stop at the Palm Island review.
In June, 2009, north Queenslander Antonio Galeano, 39, died after police used a Taser on him.
Atkinson made a statement to the media the next day that Galeano had been Tasered three times. An investigation by The Australian revealed that he had been Tasered 28 times.
And still on Tasers, last year an unarmed 16-year-old girl who was being restrained in a public park in central Brisbane, was stunned by police using a Taser.
That information was kept from the media, and a reporter from The Australian, at the insistence of police, was excluded from the courtroom where the matter was being aired.
At a press conference in Brisbane yesterday, Atkinson had some reservations about the CMC's direction to look at disciplinary charges for the two IRT officers who reviewed the police investigation of the death of Mulrunji.
Remember that they were his hand-picked duo and they reported to him regularly.
Of their effort, the CMC report states: ``The CMC also considers that other IRT findings create a perception of an attempt to justify the actions of the investigating officers, particularly in relation to the investigator's failure to record conversations with Hurley.
``For example, the IRT find that no allegation was made that anything improper was discussed during these trips, which is irrelevant to the obligation identified in the operational police manual.
``The IRT also find that tape-recording of all conversations from first point of contact with all possible persons of interest would present a considerable logistical problems, and that investigators at some point would need to make `practical decisions' as to when to electronically record conversations. Such generalisations are irrelevant in this particular situation where the officers were investigating a death in police custody and the conversations in question were with the central witness.
``The CMC considers that the IRT's investigation of this allegation is not thorough or impartial, and is therefore unsatisfactory.''
Given those findings, it is difficult to see how Atkinson can justify not taking a ``thorough, impartial'' stance in relation to his two colleagues.
Atkinson has allowed himself to be portrayed as a political pawn, and has therefore forgone a good deal of respect among his own officers.
The perception that he is compliant to government and to the police union, and insipid when he needs to demonstrate strength of leadership, provides little comfort to a public which, given the serious criticism contained in the CMC report, is expected to accept the Bligh government's assertion that he is the right choice to lead the police service for the next three years.
The question that was asked by Palm Islander Brad Foster two weeks after Mulrunji died remains unanswered:
``If Hurley and Mulrunji scuffled on the floor of the police station and it was Mulrunji who got up and walked away, and the police officer who died with four broken ribs and his liver torn in two, do you think we would still be waiting for justice?''