The extent to which indigenous Australians are over-represented in Australian prisons and subject to appearances in the criminal justice system may seem puzzling or surprising. While there are lots of reasons why this is the case, the following account by Chris Graham of the National Indigenous Times (Issue 151, April 17, 2008) of the events that lead to the death in custody of Mulrunji Doomadgee on Palm Island in a now notorious case opens a window on the way the conduct of the police can contribute to these statistics.
For the full story of the events on Palm Island that followed see:
The first thing that you need to understand about the death in custody of Mulrunji Doomadgee is that the happy-go-lucky 36-year-old should never have been arrested in the first place.
On November 19, 2004 Mulrunji was walking home from a relative’s house. The time was shortly after 10am.
Mulrunji was pretty drunk. An autopsy revealed that his blood alcohol level was almost 0.3, six times the legal driving limit.
Still, Mulrunji was on foot - he wasn’t breaking any laws. It’s not yet illegal to walk down a street with a ‘skinful’, even in Queensland.
As Mulrunji turned into Dee Street, he came across a not unusual scene for a ‘morning after’ on Palm Island - police were in the process of arresting a young Aboriginal man, Patrick Bramwell.
The arresting officer was Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley, a veteran of more than 17 years in the Queensland Police Service.
With Hurley was Aboriginal Police Liaison Officer, Lloyd Bengaroo, a Palm Island local whose job it was to act as an link between locals and the cops.
According to Hurley, Bramwell - who was being loud and abusive towards an elderly Aboriginal woman - had committed the offence of ‘public nuisance’.
As he walked past, Mulrunji remarked to Bengaroo (who he knew) that he shouldn’t be locking up his own kind.
Bengaroo warned Mulrunji to move on or he too would find himself under arrest.
Mulrunji complied, but about 30 metres from the vehicle, he apparently turned and called back three words that would cost him very dearly: “You f**king c**ts”.
Hurley decided that Mulrunji should go for public nuisance as well. Of course, the only members of the ‘public’ Mulrunji had annoyed was a cop and a liaison officer. Regardless, after loading Bramwell in the van, Hurley and Bengaroo set off after Mulrunji, who had continued walking home. He was duly arrested and bundled into the back of the wagon with Bramwell.
The accusation levelled against Bramwell and Mulrunji constitutes the first in a trio of charges that law enforcement officials call ‘having a punt’.
It goes like this: A person is arrested for a trivial offence, such as public nuisance or offensive language. The person objects to being arrested, often on the grounds that police are more foul-mouthed than most criminals. The person becomes more aggressive at the notion of a trumped up charge, and suddenly finds himself facing the additional charge of resisting arrest.
Even more infuriated, the ‘offender’ struggles harder, and a ‘fight’ ensues.
An incident that began as a verbal exchange between a cop and a citizen has led to a man facing charges which could attract some serious prison time.
Police call the three offences ‘the trifecta’. The practice has been around for decades, but admittedly happens less frequently these days (although that’s in no small part due to the fact most magistrates today are aware of the practice, and many keep a watch out for it with a view to dismissing the charges).
It’s a moot point whether or not Hurley was ‘having a punt’ that morning, because Mulrunji never lived long enough to be formally charged with any crime.