THE BOX SEAT: Crime and punishment in the deep north

Originally published in the National Indigenous Times, February 2007.

NATIONAL: The Queensland Police Service is not there just to ‘serve and protect’ its own, writes BRIAN JOHNSTONE*.


Just over 20 years ago the first witness to appear at the Fitzgerald Inquiry into police corruption in Queensland was an Aboriginal police officer, Colin Dillon.

He was there to talk about corruption and racism in the Queensland Police Force… and a bottle of scotch.

Chivas Regal Salute to be exact.

Colin had been given the bottle of scotch by a corrupt police officer. He had no idea what to do about it or to whom he should turn.

When the then Queensland government announced the appointment of the Fitzgerald Royal Commission of Inquiry he was given his answer.

Shortly after the announcement Colin walked into its offices, placed the unopened bottle of Scotch on a counter, and told his story to investigators.

For many that bottle of Chivas Regal came to symbolise the corruption at the core of the State’s police force.

The appearance before the Fitzgerald Inquiry of any serving police officer to blow the whistle on corruption would have taken a lot of guts.

It would have taken a special kind of intestinal fortitude for a young black police officer.

Colin Dillon is a modest, conservative, self-effacing bloke. He’s not one to make a big deal out of it. But he’s also not the sort to sit back with his mouth shut.

When he entered police training in 1965, two years before the 1967 referendum which granted him and his fellow countrymen citizenship rights, he found it “frightening to realise he was the only Aboriginal person on the police force”.

“The only others were the Black Trackers, universally regarded as inferior with no police powers,” he said in a speech on citizenship in 1999. It was conveyed to me – informally but very bluntly – that I had entered the wrong profession, that there was no place for a black man as a sworn officer in an all-white police force.

“I persevered and endured the unfettered racism and hard training and was eventually formally sworn in as a Constable.

“Yet even as I stood in the parade that day for the ceremonial swearing in of constables – a moment that should have been the proudest in my life – I remember the Commissioner as he made his inspection.

“On coming to me he commented to the parade Sergeant “He’s a bit on the dark side”.

“My troubles continued.

“Not only was I not wanted within the Police Force but my chosen profession and its associated tasks alienated me from my own people.

“Even the enactment of the Racial Discrimination Act in 1975 offered no respite, as it would have been sheer folly to formally complain in a work environment that quite openly tolerated racial and discriminatory practices.

“I have suffered more from racism in the profession of policing than I ever did from within the wider community.”

Colin Dillon is no longer alienated from his own people, but he has become increasingly alienated from those elected to uphold justice in his home state.

He saw and heard enough way back in the heady days of his early days as a police officer in Queensland to know he had to speak out.

The daily reality of life as a police officer was a long way short of the publicly declared mission of the Queensland Police Force.

For the record, that mission is to “serve the people of Queensland by protecting life and property, preserving peace and safety, preventing crime and upholding the law in a manner which has regard for the public good and the rights of the individual”.

It is coupled to a publicly declared vision of “a professional police service, dedicated to excellence and committed to working in partnership with the people of Queensland to enhance the safety and security of our community”.

Colin Dillon spent 36 years working to the mission and the vision before retiring from the Queensland Police Force in 2001 as the most senior ranking commissioned Aboriginal police officer in Australia.

He was awarded the Australian Police Medal (APM) in the Queen’s Honours list for distinguished Police Service to Queensland in 1992.

I first met him when he was appointed to the Board of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission in the late 90’s by the Howard government.

He quickly established himself with his fellow Commissioners and staff, including those suspicious of his police background and his appointment by Government, as an honest and forthright supporter of Aboriginal rights.

I’m proud to call him a friend.

He soon set about working to have state and federal governments implement the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

He was a great loss to ATSIC when he failed to gain office in the first ever fully elected Board of Commissioners which saw Geoff Clark become Chairperson.

He went back to Queensland and began working for the state government on alcohol management programs.

Colin Dillon was sitting in the offices of the Department of Premier and Cabinet at a whole of government meeting on the diversionary programs just before Christmas when he received a message that the Director of Public Prosecutions had decided not to charge police officer Chris Hurley over the death of Mulrunji in the police lock up on Palm Island in 2004 – despite a Coroner’s finding that Hurley was responsible.

Colin Dillon knew it was time to speak out again.

He was already fuming from the Government’s post-election decision to abolish the Department of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Policy (DATSIP) without mentioning a word of it during the election campaign.

The news about the Palm Island death in custody case was the final straw.

Twenty years on from the Fitzgerald Inquiry, which resulted in the then Police Commissioner Terrence Lewis being convicted of corruption and stripped of a knighthood, Colin Dillon was back in the public limelight bemoaning the treatment of his people at the hands of elements of a police force he’d served for more than 35 years.

True to form, his actions spoke louder than his words.

Promptly, and publicly, he quit.

He told ABC News in Queensland he would never again work for the Queensland government as long as Peter Beattie’s ALP was in power.

He was “saddened and angry” at the treatment of Aboriginal people in his home state.

“There’s definitely one law for Indigenous people and one law for non-Indigenous people,” he told an ABC journalist. “And look, I can tell you in my long career I have never ever seen any semblance of any form of justice come out of the Queensland criminal justice system favouring Indigenous people.”

He then dropped a huge bucket over Premier Beattie for his insensitivity in dealing with the DPP’s decision and his failure to recognise the grief of the Palm Island community.

I thought of Colin Dillon this week as media reports filtered through from Queensland that the state’s powerful Police Union was gearing up for a “protracted and dirty fight” with the state government.

Some media outlets claimed the union was planning one of the biggest protest campaigns in Queensland’s history following the recommendation from Sir Laurence Street that Hurley be charged.

As an official indictment loomed over Senior-Sergeant Hurley for the manslaughter of Mulrunji, the union reportedly began shoring up rank-and-file numbers for a plan to march on state parliament.

Up to 2000 police, many uniformed and on duty, met at the Broncos Leagues Club in inner Brisbane late last week to vote on tactics and vent “their frustrations” about the “political interference” which led to the charging of Hurley.

Police vehicles reportedly clogged the Broncos’ car park and surrounding streets.
Members voted unanimously on four motions, including a vow to stage an unprecedented mass march of police on Parliament House.

“The clear message for you, Premier Beattie, is that the silent majority are about to get noisy,” QPU vice-president Denis Fitzpatrick reportedly told the meeting.

Fitzpatrick also called for the immediate implementation of a Deaths In Custody recommendation for video surveillance in police cells… a recommendation ignored by the police union for more than a decade.

You will no doubt hear and see much in the mainstream media in coming days about the Police Union protest.

When you do, I suggest you keep uppermost in your mind the stated mission of the Queensland Police force.

Let me remind Mr Fitzpatrick; Your members are there to “serve the people of Queensland”. They are sworn to do so “by protecting life and property, preserving peace and safety, preventing crime and upholding the law in a manner which has regard for the public good and the rights of the individual”.

And when you, dear NIT reader, hear those media reports I’d ask that you to spare a thought for Colin Dillon, and fellow members of the (normally) silent minority.

They have campaigned incessantly for years for recognition of the crime and punishment issues and concerns now being taken seriously by state government, but sadly ignored by a police union mounting a campaign in defence of the indefensible.
* Brian Johnstone is a columnist and writer for NIT. He has won both a Walkley Award and a Human Rights Award for his work with NIT.


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