The Tall Man is the story of the Palm Island riot that erupted after a coroner found ‘no case to answer’ in the matter of the death of Cameron Doomadgee in Queensland. The charismatic cop implicated in that death in custody was Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley, and the riot provoked a review of the case by an interstate judge, a trial and an acquittal.
The facts are certainly circumstantial. Arrested for a trivial offence, Doomadgee punched Hurley. On the record is that Hurley then ‘speared’ him into a police van, tripped as they were going into the police station, and was partially seen to have been making successive ‘arm movements’ with Doomadgee in the cell. Doomadgee died of a ruptured liver not normally caused by anything other than severe impact such as in a car crash, and his body was covered in bruises. There were inappropriate police procedures, shoddy interviews and inconsistent statements.
On the other hand, almost every Aboriginal witness was drunk, except for the Aboriginal police liaison officer who was scared to cause himself trouble. On the face of it, I don’t see how anyone could have convicted Hurley without a shadow of doubt. There weren’t any reliable witnesses anywhere.
Good things came out of this appalling event. There is better video surveillance in police stations, one of the recommendations of the Black Deaths in Custody Royal Commission. Despite the hubris of the police union afterwards, the fact that the case went to trial, the first ever of its type, may rein in some excesses.
But Hooper is no bleeding heart, and although she is sympathetic to Aboriginal families caught up in this case, she paints a grim picture of Palm Island. 90% unemployment, widespread excessive drinking, abuse and violence. Intergenerational hopelessness. Why do those people live there? I don’t understand why they don’t leave. There’s constant conflict between the police doing a thankless job and the violent drunks. The cops get constant abuse and achieve nothing. Why do they want to work there? (Hooper says that Hurley furthered his career ambitions by taking on tough postings like these, but that he also genuinely wanted to help Aboriginal children and was active in community initiatives such as sport to achieve that.)
It seems as if the frontier is still there, and that some matters are policed the old-fashioned way. Racism is both black and white, and there are no winners. It’s an appalling story, one which I think Hooper was brave to write.
Author: Chloe Hooper
Title: The Tall Man
Source: Casey-Cardinia Library