Top cop slammed for Palm probes

By: Michael McKenna, Tony Koch

QUEENSLAND Police Commissioner Bob Atkinson was responsible for seriously ``flawed'' investigations into the 2004 death in custody of Palm Island man Mulrunji Doomadgee that invoked the pre-Fitzgerald culture of cover-up, the state's anti-corruption agency has found.
The scathing report to be released today by the Crime and Misconduct Commission will put Mr Atkinson's recently extended tenure under intense pressure.
The report finds the original police investigation into Doomadgee's death and a subsequent internal review of it were biased and failed to heed the most basic police procedures.
A draft copy of the CMC report, obtained by The Australian, recommends misconduct charges or disciplinary action against at least six police, including two senior officers hand-picked by Mr Atkinson to conduct the review into the initial death-in-custody investigation.
``The Commissioner of Police is responsible for the culture in which the flawed Palm Island Review was produced,'' the draft report said.
``The accountability for the Palm Island Review falls squarely on the shoulders of the Commissioner.''
In February, Premier Anna Bligh made a surprise announcement when she reappointed Mr Atkinson -- Police Commissioner for almost 10 years -- to head the 10,000-strong service for a further three years, despite his existing contract not expiring until October.
The CMC has also come under attack from the police union, and privately from senior police, for not immediately taking over the investigation after Doomadgee's watchhouse death on November 19, 2004.
Doomadgee's violent death, within an hour of being arrested for public nuisance by Palm Island police boss Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley, sparked riots that burnt down the police station servicing the Aboriginal community off Townsville.
Sergeant Hurley was acquitted in 2007 of Doomadgee's
manslaughter. A third inquest into the death found last month that Sergeant Hurley had fatally injured the heavily intoxicated Aborigine during a scuffle at the Palm Island lockup, but Acting Coroner Brian Hine said no finding could be made on whether this was accidental on deliberate.
In its draft report, the CMC said the investigation was the responsibility of Queensland Police, which then destroyed ``the Palm Island community's confidence that there would be an impartial investigation''.
Police have attempted to block the release of the report, with some arguing it will be counterproductive to the maintenance of confidence in the police and its internal disciplinary system.
Queensland Police yesterday declined to comment on the report until its release today.
However, in the draft report police have rejected any wrongdoing by the officers involved. They also accuse the CMC of failing to give weight to the challenges -- including the remote location and limited resources -- facing investigators after Doomadgee's death.
And they said they had not been given sufficient time to give proper consideration and comment to the draft report, saying publication was premature. It is unclear how much the final report will differ from the draft.
In its 170-page-plus draft, the CMC said officers involved in the initial death-in-custody investigation and internal review were handicapped by their ``over-identification with fellow officers who were under examination''.
One officer -- who was a friend of Sergeant Hurley -- was involved in initial interviews over the death. He failed to mention in a statement that an indigenous witness had alleged Mr Doomadgee had been punched by Sergeant Hurley.
``While we are not suggesting that the evidence establishes that the Queensland Police Service has returned to the Fitzgerald inquiry days, the Palm Island review is an indication there are signs that some of the negative aspects of the then pervading culture are re-emerging and taking hold,'' the draft report said.
``In the CMC's view, the initial QPS investigation and the Palm Island review are characterised by over-identification, double standards and an unwillingness to publicly acknowledge failings on the part of police.''
The internal police review was launched in 2006 after Deputy State Coroner Christine Clements slammed the initial death-in-custody investigation as lacking ``transparency, objectivity and independence''.
In its draft report, the CMC echoed the condemnation of the initial investigation, saying it was seriously flawed and failed to heed police policies and procedures, the QPS Code of Conduct and ignored the recommendations of the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.
In the past two years, the police service has been accused by the CMC of ``protecting their own'' and refusing to ``learn from its mistakes'' after Tasering a 16-year-old girl -- a story exposed by The Australian -- and misconduct involving prisoners.
Earlier this year, incoming CMC chairman Martin Moynihan said he would review the commission's practice of referring most complaints against police back to the service for investigation.
In the draft Palm Island report, the CMC said the service had shown it was capable of dealing with unacceptable conduct.
``However, the CMC increasingly has seen in the more serious, sensitive and high-profile cases evidence of an inability on the part of the service to recognise, let alone acknowledge, failure to meet its high standards of performance, behaviour and ethical conduct.''