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Domestic violence support services admit feeling powerless to protect wives of cops; over 80% of cops charged with domestic violence are never investigated

  Domestic violence workers say they come in “waves” — women who, three or four at a time, step forward for help escaping a special class of...

 Domestic violence workers say they come in “waves” — women who, three or four at a time, step forward for help escaping a special class of abuser experts deem particularly high risk: police officers.

Often they’ll call from out of town. A woman living in a rural community in one of Australia’s eastern states recently got in touch with a domestic violence service in a busy city, hundreds of kilometres away. She told support workers her husband — a cop with specialist training and connections — had assaulted her in front of his colleagues, enlisted friends and relatives to help stop her leaving, and warned her that if she ever tried to run, he’d track her down, kill her and bury her some place her body would never be found.

She believed him.

At one point in the elaborate escape plan the service devised, the woman put her phone on a truck heading north, climbed into a car booked under a fake name, and sped off in the opposite direction. “Hers was a particularly tricky case,” one of the staff involved explained, “because of how isolated she was.”

But the abuse she experienced — and the powerlessness to leave she felt — is similar to what other women in violent relationships with police say they endure. Where do you turn when your abuser is part of the system meant to protect you?

An ABC News investigation has found police in Australia are too often failing to take action against domestic violence perpetrators in their ranks, fuelling a culture of impunity in law enforcement agencies across the country and putting victims’ safety at risk.

In public, senior police have consistently claimed they hold serving officers to higher standards and even “more accountable” for committing domestic violence. But behind closed doors, police concede they’re treating badged abusers differently to offenders in the broader community.

National data on the number of police officers charged with domestic violence — the first time such a snapshot has been compiled — shows state police forces have taken criminal action against relatively few officers. Documents obtained by the ABC under Freedom of Information reveal at least 55 police officers around Australia were charged with domestic violence-related offences in 2019, with charges ranging from breaching protection orders, assault with a weapon and reckless wounding, to strangulation, stalking, sexual assault and making threats to kill.

The rank of officers charged ranged from probationary constable to inspector and the majority were male; of 41 cases in which the officer’s gender is known, four were women. (In most cases the information obtained does not identify how many were found guilty of their charges or had convictions recorded.)

Police officers charged with domestic/family violence in 2019

State*Officers chargedForce size
New South Wales1117,111
Western Australia07,012
South Australia54,700
Northern Territory01,625

*Excludes ACT Policing and the Australian Federal Police which would not provide data or documents sought by the ABC.

With evidence suggesting police are at least as likely to perpetrate domestic violence as the general population, experts say the figures are likely to be just “the tip of the iceberg”, and highlight how difficult it can be not only for victims to report abusers in police ranks, but to get police to take action against their own. In the year ending June 2019, for instance, there were roughly 37 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 11 were charged.

“The number of police officers charged is strikingly low given the extent and severity of the [alleged] violence and what we, even as a small project, hear from the people we support who experience this kind of abuse,” said Lauren Caulfield, coordinator of the Policing Family Violence project in Melbourne.

Because police do not publicly report information about employees involved in domestic violence matters, it’s difficult to get an accurate sense of the scale of the problem, Ms Caulfield said. Information about officers who were charged, for example, doesn’t include family violence callouts, police named as respondents on protection orders, or instances where victims have tried to report abuse and been discouraged or not taken seriously.

‘A culture of of having each other’s backs’

The problem — that police “apply different standards” to themselves — was discussed last year in a meeting of the National Family Violence Policing Executive Group, which is made up of senior police from all states and territories. According to minutes from the July gathering, obtained by the ABC under Freedom of Information, Victoria Police reported its own data on police offenders showed just that: “We are policing [the] community differently to how we police ourselves.”

That data emerged after Victoria Police analysed 278 family violence incidents involving employees in 2017, as part of a strategy to fix its inconsistent response. The review found criminal matters involving police perpetrators were significantly less likely to result in action being taken. Of all family violence crime, 80 per cent of alleged offenders were “processed” — that is, they were arrested, charged or cautioned. In family violence matters involving police, however, less than 20 per cent of alleged offenders were processed.

“The fact that police responses to family violence are different when the perpetrator is a police officer comes as no surprise, because it is what women who experience this violence have been saying for a long time,” Ms Caulfield said.

“Women we support tell us there is a culture of police officers having each other’s backs that dissuades them from speaking out, or means that when they do, the violence is minimised or excuses are made. There’s a focus on the ways reporting abuse could impact the officer’s wellbeing or damage their career instead of on the safety of the women targeted.”

Over the past few years, there has been a bright spotlight on the issue of Australian police officers who use violence or “excessive” force against members of the public, with incidents of officers beating a disability pensionerkicking and pinning down a teenager, and stomping on a homeless man’s head prompting widespread outrage.

But much less scrutiny has been applied to the potential for officers to use violence in the home, despite the known risks associated with policing work and cultures, and the unique barriers victims can face in getting help.

Now, survivors and advocates are calling for an urgent overhaul of the way police handle domestic violence matters involving their own: to ensure victims feel safe reporting allegations to police, and that investigations into serving officers are never conducted by colleagues from the same station or region. ABC News has spoken with dozens of survivors and frontline workers who say that unless police implement specific policies to ensure investigations are rigorous and fair, a “culture of impunity” — a pattern of protecting abusers over the abused — will continue to flourish.

“From listening to the partners of police we support, police do not appear to be investigating these matters in the same way as they do other domestic violence matters, and some women have told us they feel police are actively blocking justice for them,” said Rosie O’Malley, chief executive of the Gold Coast-based Domestic Violence Prevention Centre.

“I think this is a significant problem because if police can’t police their own behaviour in relation to domestic violence, why should women trust them to be effective doing so in the broader community?”

‘It’s like he never switched off from cop mode’

If domestic violence is significantly under-reported, abuse by police officers is practically invisible. To date there have been no published studies of how many police officers commit domestic abuse in Australia, though American research has previously found it occurs in the US with alarming frequency. Studies between 1991 and 2006 found male and female officers may be between two and four times more likely to abuse their partner, with rates increasing among those who were separated or divorced.

More recently, researchers have drawn links between some officers’ use of violence and their exposure to violence on the job, potentially higher rates of problem drinking and PTSD, and training in using power and coercive force, which may “spill over” into their private relationships.

The male-dominated cultures of policing organisations have also been flagged. A recent review into discrimination and sexual harassment in Victoria Police, for instance, found some members held cultural attitudes that are consistent with family violence risk factors, including a rigid adherence to gender stereotypes and “high tolerance” for sexual harassment.

Of course, most police take their commitment to serving and protecting the community very seriously, and many care deeply about addressing domestic violence in particular. But for many women, there’s no question the nature of police work — and the tools, weapons and information officers have access to — has shaped their partner’s abuse.

“It’s like he never switched off from cop mode,” said Amelia*, whose husband has been charged with using a carriage service to menace, harass or cause offence and malicious damage to property, among other offences. “He always said he knew how to get around the system, that it wasn’t domestic violence unless there was physical abuse. When we first got together, he told me you couldn’t take out an AVO against a cop.”

Now, she knows better. But for years Amelia said she “walked on eggshells” to avoid setting her husband off. She inevitably would, though: if she didn’t have school uniforms ready in the morning, if it rained while she was at work and the washing got wet.

“He’d go from zero to 100 in an instant,” she said. “He’d scream and yell at me and the kids, and throw things around the house, punch holes in walls. But he’d tell me, ‘I’ve dealt with domestic violence for years, I hope you meet a real victim one day’. So I just thought I had an angry husband. I didn’t know then that there are people willing to take it seriously, who won’t just go, ‘He was drinking and he said he was going to kill you — so what?’”

Still, many victims do not speak out precisely because their partner is a cop. “The police officer’s threats and intimidation and their position of power has been a key factor for all the victims we have worked with in these kinds of cases,” said Kerrie Thompson, chief executive of the Victims of Crime Assistance League (VOCAL) in NSW. “They’ve been told, ‘I’m a police officer, no one will believe you’. Or, ‘I’ve told everyone at work you’re crazy — they’ll believe me over you’.”

Some complainants who’ve sought help from police have reported positive dealings, usually when they’ve approached officers from different stations or regions than where their partner works. And occasionally, news of action makes headlines.

In August, a male senior constable in Sydney’s south-west was charged with three counts of common assault, using a carriage service to menace, harass or offend, and stalking. Last month, a female senior constable was granted bail in Newcastle Local Court after being charged with wounding a person with intent to cause grievous bodily harm, and reckless wounding.

But frontline workers around Australia say the kind of response victims get seems to be “luck of the draw”, and is often defensive or sceptical. “Right at the start, when they first reach out to police for assistance, victims are often told, ‘Are you sure you want to go ahead with this? He could lose his job’,” Ms Thompson said.

“We work with survivors of various crimes and this response is unique to domestic violence victims whose partners are service police members. These women have reached a point where their partner’s harassment, intimidation and abuse has escalated to an unbearable level, so it’s disappointing that they’re met with resistance.”

‘I had no faith police could keep me safe’

Police are supposed to respond to domestic violence matters involving employees in the same way they handle domestic violence incidents generally. Most state forces have codes of practice that set out additional requirements for investigations involving police — including that officers who have been charged or who are subject to protection order applications must surrender their gun. Some are also stood down or put on desk duties while allegations of domestic violence are investigated as part of internal complaints processes.

But this can deter victims from seeking help.

“A few times I spoke quietly to other police or made anonymous calls to the police assistance line, just to get some advice about what I could do,” said Emma*, whose husband is specially trained in responding to domestic violence. “But they told me to be careful because he’d probably be put on restricted duties and that might inflame the situation.”

By that stage, she said, her husband’s controlling behaviours had escalated dramatically; he’d warned her against reporting him and threatened to kill himself if she left him. “I didn’t think there was any point getting a domestic violence order and, given the job he was in, I had no faith police could keep me safe,” she said. “I felt completely trapped.”

According to Melbourne lawyer and police accountability specialist Jeremy King, the next hurdle for victims, if they make it that far, is the investigation.

“Police have an inherent bias when it comes to investigating their own ... and that bias can skew investigations in all sorts of ways,” he said. “It has been my experience with my clients that police are more sceptical of complainants when there is another police officer involved ... then on top of that, there have been particular examples where, deliberately or otherwise, statements haven’t been taken, actions haven’t been taken where perhaps they would have been if a police officer wasn’t involved.”

For that reason, Mr King said, it’s “remarkable” that 55 officers in Australia were charged with domestic violence offences last year. “The standard of proof in criminal proceedings is beyond reasonable doubt, which is a very high bar to get over. Given the [alleged] perpetrators in these matters know the system, this creates additional roadblocks in respect to obtaining evidence.”

For some women, however, just getting a protection order — a civil intervention — has felt impossible.

‘It just gave him a green light’

When Lucy* finally sought an AVO against her husband, a NSW Police officer, she thought she was well-enough prepared. For several years, she’d kept a diary of his abuse, which she said began seemingly overnight when her first child was born. He’d come home from work most days and put her through what she calls an “interrogation”, demanding to know exactly where she’d been, how much money she’d spent, what time the children took naps, why the house wasn’t spotless.

Before long, Lucy said, he was rationing her food, timing her trips to the supermarket and “exploding” if she brought home the “wrong” groceries.

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