Queensland police reject claims officers are allowing 'fair fights' in Aurukun to settle disputes


2016 May, 16

KIM LANDERS: Queensland Police has rejected claims that officers in the remote Cape York community of Aurukun are encouraging young people to settle disputes in so-called "fair fights".

Cape York Indigenous Leader Noel Pearson has told AM around 100 young people aren't going to school or working and they're roaming the streets causing trouble.

Last week, 25 teachers and staff were evacuated from Aurukun after the school principal was attacked.

Noel Pearson says police are not taking a zero tolerance approach to violence, but as Lindy Kerin reports, police say it's often difficult to intervene.

LINDY KERIN: Just a week after the mass evacuation of teachers and staff from the local school, Cape York leader Noel Pearson says teachers won't be going back to work at Aurukun until their safety can be guaranteed.

NOEL PEARSON: It's just unacceptable that their safety should in any way be compromised. That is why I took the decision to recommend to the Queensland department of education that they be removed from the community until the security situation is reviewed.

LINDY KERIN: Noel Pearson says the violence in the remote community is being fuelled by drugs and alcohol.

NOWL PEARSON: There's a lot of sly grog. There's known grog dealers that seem to deal with impunity.

LINDY KERIN: And he's criticised the police response to young offenders involved in violent disputes. He says local officers are allowing fair fights as way to settle conflicts.

NOEL PEARSON: You know, there's a very old idea, this one, that somehow the police should sanction fair fights between these young people and so on. It is not the right message to send.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Is it happening? Is that what's happening?

NOEL PEARSON: I've heard if from reliable sources that they have witnessed police doing that.

LINDY KERIN: Queensland Assistant Commissioner Paul Taylor says police do not condone fair fights. But he says it is sometimes difficult for officers to intervene.

PAUL TAYLOR: It is fair to say that on occasion's police do go to situations where fair fights have commenced, or what's been described as fair fights. And because of the numbers of people there and the delicacy around making sure they don't have the crowd turn on them, there's occasions when they do try to negotiate a peaceful settlement between parties.

Aurukun, as you're probably aware can be complex, in the fact that there are five different clans there and on occasions there are ongoing disputes, family disputes, between the families. And on some occasions they can be over minor matters.

So when the police do witness these types of incidents, if there's evidence there to prosecute the persons involved, they do take that course of action.

LINDY KERIN: And what does that mean? So the police might just let that play out? Or what does that mean?

PAUL TAYLOR: Well look, often fair fights mean that there's not weapons involved. Like I said, there could be up to 100-150 people at these situations on some occasions.

These fair fights are matters that the community have been doing for years and the police, if they're able to intervene safely and don't have a situation where they become the victims of the hostilities, they do so.

But if it's prudent for them to observe and take evidence and prosecute a later time, if it's prudent for them to try and negotiate with the elders that are there to resolve the matters, that's what they try and do.

LINDY KERIN: How much of the violence in Aurukun that we've heard about over the last week since the attack in the school principle, how much of that is driven by alcohol or drugs?

PAUL TAYLOR: Well look we believe that the incident or the allegations that you're talking about regarding the school principal, we don't believe that alcohol was related in that particular incident.

But it's fair to say that alcohol, particularly sly grog that comes into the community undetected, has a major impact on what goes in the community.

The police are continually targeting - and again this is not an easy thing to stop for Aurukun - whilst there might be one road and waterways in there are many, many avenues that people take to try and get around the police patrols.

Police are actively targeting the supply of sly grog into the community. Over the weekend there was a couple of illegal's that were intercepted with a quantity of grog that was destined for the community.

Typically these are people that a profiteering of the misery they create and there's no doubt that it adds to situation where usually the alcohol fuelled violence occurs.

KIM LANDERS: Assistant commissioner Paul Taylor, from the Queensland Police northern region, speaking to our reporter Lindy Kerin.

Queensland police reject claims officers are allowing 'fair fights' in Aurukun to settle disputes