NSW Police must urgently overhaul the way it deals with perpetrators of domestic violence in its ranks, experts say, with frontline workers claiming the standard practice of police investigating their close colleagues too often means alleged abusers are not being held accountable, putting victims’ safety on the line.
- 16 NSW Police officers were charged with domestic violence last year
- Victims can face significant barriers seeking help and disturbing treatment by police
- Experts say the force must urgently overhaul the way it handles perpetrators in its ranks
Documents obtained by ABC News under freedom of information reveal 16 NSW Police officers were last year charged with domestic violence offences ranging from breaching AVOs and reckless wounding, to assault occasioning actual bodily harm, choking, stalking, failing to ensure the safekeeping of a prohibited weapon, and perverting the course of justice.
The charges were brought against one constable, 12 senior constables and three sergeants — 11 males and five females — though it is unclear if any have been found guilty or had convictions recorded. The 2020 data is similar to that of previous years, with 11 officers charged with domestic violence offences in 2019 and 14 in 2018. https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/JByIL/1/?abcnewsembedheight=500
Advocates fear the new figures are likely to be a fraction of the actual number of police perpetrating domestic violence given how difficult it can be for victims to report — and for police to take action against their own. As an ABC News investigation last year revealed, Australian police forces take criminal action against relatively few employees, with victims claiming police in NSW and other states have discouraged them from reporting domestic violence by officers as part of a pattern of protecting abusers over the abused.
It comes as NSW Police face sustained criticism for their handling of domestic violence cases, including that of teenagers Jack and Jennifer Edwards, who the coroner last month found were murdered by their father in 2018 after a string of critical “errors and omissions” by police and other professionals.
“The number of police officers charged with domestic violence last year could be seen as both low and high,” said Kerrie Thompson, chief executive of the Victims of Crime Assistance League (VOCAL) in NSW. “We have many women contact us seeking help because their partner or ex-partner is violent and a serving police officer, so … only 16 officers charged in one year seems very low. On the other hand, it is our experience that police are often not charged with domestic violence and … there is a reluctance to put protection in place for the victim.”
For context, in the year ending June 2020, there were roughly 38 domestic and family violence offenders per 10,000 persons in NSW. Yet of more than 17,000 officers employed by NSW Police, last year just 16 were charged (or roughly 9 per 10,000).
Victims feel ‘utterly helpless’
Ms Thompson said the number of victims seeking support for domestic violence by police officers has been increasing in recent years, with many reporting they’ve had disturbing experiences after approaching police for help. Most victims don’t necessarily want their perpetrator to be charged, she added — often they just want an AVO, for the violence and abuse to stop.
“One of the most common themes I hear from women is that police seem to prioritise the accused officer’s career over the victim’s safety,” Ms Thompson said. “The most common response is that police will say, ‘If she [the victim] reports this, he’ll be put on restricted duties and lose access to his firearm’.” This can be devastating: “They feel utterly helpless, and that there is no accountability.”
In some cases, victims who have gone to police for assistance say they’ve been told to be “more understanding” of the stress abusive officers are under at work, had their safety plans and private information leaked to their perpetrator, or been charged with domestic violence themselves. As one NSW lawyer told ABC News last year, when an allegation of abuse is raised against a fellow officer, police tend to “close ranks“.
One victim VOCAL supported — the ex-partner of a serving NSW Police officer — was allegedly threatened by his colleagues after seeking help from police. “Some of his workmates were calling her over a period of time, saying if she kept reporting [her ex’s abuse], they’d take an AVO out against her,” Ms Thompson said.
“It’s mind-blowing to think that kind of intimidation is happening. Not only does it leave the victim feeling isolated, it also gives their abuser a sense that nothing will be done, that no action will be taken, and the abuse often continues.”
Conflicts of interest plaguing investigations
Still, lawyers and advocates argue one of the most pressing problems is that NSW Police, like other Australian forces, does not have a specific policy for dealing with domestic violence among its members, and inconsistently manages conflicts of interest in such matters.
To address some of these issues, Victoria Police last week announced it is setting up a specialist unit to investigate cases of family violence among its members to ensure perpetrators in the force are held to the same standard as those in the broader community.
In NSW, however, police refer domestic violence investigations involving officers to other stations or area commands only on a “case-by-case basis” — a practice Ms Thompson believes is “problematic” given the “pressure” it puts on investigators, who may be influenced by their biases.
“It’s unfair to both the victim and the investigating officer to have someone even in a neighbouring command investigating a colleague,” she said. “I think many people may find it hard to be impartial, especially in rural and regional areas where communities are small.”
Liz Snell, law reform and policy coordinator at Women’s Legal Service NSW, agrees. For many years, Ms Snell and her team have “consistently” assisted women experiencing domestic violence by serving police officers, she said, many of whom face significant “barriers” to getting help.
Such barriers can include a fear of not being believed by police, confusion about where to report violence when they don’t want to approach the area command where their perpetrator works, a fear of officers’ access to firearms and insider information and a fear — too often realised — that appropriate action won’t be taken.
“Police from the same police station must not conduct the investigation. In some cases, nor should police from the same police area command. There must be oversight mechanisms,” Ms Snell said. “There need to be clear processes [for victims] to safely report domestic violence perpetrated by a police officer that address conflict of interest issues and these policies need to be published.”
Much more work needs to be done to increase community confidence in police “holding their own officers accountable”, Ms Snell added, “as well as in police responses generally to sexual, domestic and family violence and abuse, as highlighted in the recent coronial findings into the deaths of Jack and Jennifer Edwards”.
‘We’ll deal with it internally’
Responding to a detailed list of questions from ABC News, a NSW Police spokesperson said they had “nothing further to provide in response from when you last inquired about this topic” and referred to a previous statement in which they said the force “takes all reported allegations of domestic violence seriously”.‘
“We thoroughly pursue any report of domestic violence, regardless of whether or not a police officer is involved. All reported domestic violence matters involving police are considered and risk assessed,” the spokesperson said.
“The NSW Police Force maintains a leadership position in the community due to our unique law enforcement position, but also by virtue of our willingness to proactively change our policies, procedures and practices.”
As part of that leadership position, the spokesperson added, “we are endeavouring to change community attitudes to increase the reporting of DV by all community members and at the same time change attitudes away from the issue being one of ‘private business’ towards the ‘criminalising’ of such behaviour.”
For Ms Thompson, though, efforts to increase reporting are not consistently being followed through, which risks undermining that leadership position. “Society is starting to understand that domestic violence is a crime and that reporting to police is necessary for protection, yet the system doesn’t support victims whose perpetrators are serving police officers,” she said.
“In my experience, complaints about serving officers seem to get mixed up in police systems … and usually the response from police is, ‘We’ll talk to him, we’ll deal with it internally’, and the victim-survivor does not hear about the outcome.”
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