Even before the murder of Luke Batty in 2013 shocked the nation and prompted Premier Daniel Andrews to call a family violence royal commission, the leadership of Victoria Police realised it confronted a big problem.
Family violence was “one of Australia’s filthy little secrets,” said then Chief Commissioner of Victoria Police, Ken Lay in a landmark National Press Club speech three months before Batty’s murder.
“All of us would do well to believe women’s stories,” he said, adding that, “We’re dealing with 160 years of culture where police often treated this as a civil dispute”.
It was a marker in a long-running shift in Victoria Police’s attitude to family violence. Batty’s subsequent murder and the strength and campaigning of his mother, Rosie, made it clear how much change was needed – a realisation that reached the political stage, and then, through the royal commission, the realm of public policy.
Of the 227 recommendations out of the commission, 27 were aimed at Victoria Police and the force is one of the few government agencies to acquit all of them. But now, five years since Victoria’s Royal Commission into Family Violence handed down its recommendations, how much has really changed?
On the ground, the government established family violence units at every major police station, run by specialist detectives. A major crime taskforce was created to target repeat offenders and uncovered hard core predatory criminals who moved from victim to victim.
Independent researchers have helped develop a new risk assessment tool, the second of its kind in the world, to overhaul the way frontline police assess the safety of victims when they attend an incident.
Reforms to Victoria Police’s antiquated technology have also helped, with officers able to search criminal databases and issue safety notices in the field. The use of mobile technology was accompanied by new procedures that prioritised the service of intervention orders on high-risk perpetrators.Advertisementhttps://284b82781fde84434e5438e1981cc71e.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html
Police officers at all levels now receive family violence education through a Family Violence Centre of Learning.
And notably, the language police used has also dramatically changed. In 2017, then Deputy Commissioner, and now Chief Commissioner, Shane Patton deliberately chose to compare family violence to terrorism, which marked another evolution in the Victoria Police response. “The ramifications are the same in the long run,” he said.
“We have death, we have serious trauma, we have serious injury and we have people impacted for the rest of their lives.”
A separate command structure was established to oversee the force’s response, a move that its most senior officer, Assistant Commissioner Lauren Callaway, said demonstrates how seriously Victoria Police takes the issue, and its long-term commitment to both address the crime and its base causes, including gender inequality.
“I’ve been in the police force for 27 years, and I would say the last five years have been the most significant cultural shift in a policing organisation,” Assistant Commissioner Callaway said.
But there’s still work to do.
Agencies supporting at-risk women say police responses are still inconsistent, and an inherent distrust of police from Aboriginal and migrant communities remains. Antoinette Braybrook, the chief executive of Aboriginal family violence prevention service Djirra, said police stations remained an unsafe place for women to report family violence.
“Our community experiences mistrust of police due to experiences of racial targeting and a long history of child removal, which has increased in Victoria over the past decade,” Ms Braybrook said.
“Our client experiences are not reflecting any overwhelming improvement in police response for Aboriginal women experiencing family violence.”
Women’s Legal Service Victoria lawyers are in the courts on a daily basis, representing women and their children in family violence intervention order applications.https://www.smh.com.au/interactive/modules/flourish-embed/index.html?resizable=true&dataSrc=visualisation/5657888
The service’s acting chief executive Helen Matthews said they were pleased with Victoria Police’s willingness to engage with support services, but there were still inconsistent responses on the ground.
Some officers, in their applications for intervention orders before the court, were good at identifying women who were in fear and subject to controlling behaviour, even if they hadn’t yet been subject to physical violence. But police needed to do more to encourage women to seek legal advice before their court dates, Ms Matthews said.
Worryingly, police were still mis-identifying women as the perpetrator when they attended incidents.
“We have women who have been experiencing family violence still being called out as the perpetrator and still not getting an opportunity to tell her story to the police because he listens to the male who answers the door when they attend,” she said.
Tania Farha, head of Domestic Violence Victoria, said the huge increase in reports to police (a record 92,521 reports last year) reflected a level of community confidence in police, but consistency was an issue.
“[Police] have made a series of efforts to try and build that consistency across the system, but there’s so many call-outs it’s got to be a general response in the first instance and getting 15,000 members to have a consistent response is not easy,” Ms Farha said.
Assistant Commissioner Callaway said consistency of practice was a key focus, and agreed more work needed to be done with marginalised communities, including LGBTIQ people, people with a disability and those who are culturally and linguistically diverse.https://imasdk.googleapis.com/js/core/bridge3.448.1_en.html#goog_1013682984Play VideoPlay video2:00″We still have a long way to go.”
Rosie Batty reflects on the progress made in the five years since the Royal Commission into domestic violence.
These communities, she said, have unique needs and experience additional barriers in reporting family violence to police.
Police will also continue, she said, to build greater trust and relationships with Aboriginal people who have experienced disproportionate harm.
“We’ve had some really good practice, we’ve had some poor practice that still needs to be lifted,” she said.
Assistant Commissioner Callaway remembers about a decade ago when there were 25,000 reports a year and now, with more than triple the number family violence call-outs, she is often asked when the numbers will plateau.
“How many reports are acceptable?” She said.
“I don’t know the answer to that. I believe family violence is still under-reported, but community confidence has lifted and stigma has reduced, there is no doubt about it.”
She said Victoria Police was deeply committed to addressing family violence.
“I would like to see victims who are safer, that harm is reducing and we are actually reaching into the communities that don’t always come forward to a police counter and more reporting and more engagement and more confidence from our diverse community.”
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