- by Anna Pha
- The Guardian
- Issue #2035
Corroboree – Laura Dance Festival. Photo: Malcolm Williams – flickr.com (CC BY 2.0)
This article contains references to examples of experiences of First Nations peoples, and language that is disrespectful and offensive to their culture, history, people and communities that may cause distress. The content is sometimes confronting and disturbing.
A Queensland Commission of Inquiry into Queensland police handling of domestic and family violence (DFV) has found systemic sexism, misogyny, racism, and overall negative attitudes by police towards DFV.
The terms of reference of the inquiry, headed by Judge Deborah Richards, included examining the Queensland Police Service’s (QPS) responses to DFV; the adequacy of the current conduct and complaints handling processes against police officers; and cultural issues within the QPS and how they have contributed to the overrepresentation of First Nations people in the criminal justice system.
The inquiry was established as part of the Queensland government’s response to the recommendations of the Women’s Safety and Justice Taskforce in Hear her voice: Report One (2021). Its report was handed down on 24th November.
The inquiry found that victim-survivors were often not taken seriously, not properly supported, and that the perpetrators were not held to account.
It heard chilling examples of racist, misogynistic, and disrespectful attitudes towards women who had approached the QPS for assistance. Comments such as:
- “I can see why he does it to her. If I was in his position I’d do that”
- “Rape is just surprise sex”
- “[It] sounds like they had a bit of a struggle cuddle.”
The Commission’s findings are damning of the QPS’s leadership, saying that “[…] there is a strong perception among the QPS membership that its senior leadership lacks integrity. This has contributed to low morale in the organisation, including in relation to domestic and family violence responses.”
The inquiry heard harrowing examples of victim-survivor experiences with police. To quote two examples:
“They dismissed, belittled and discounted me. They made the process impossible. They acted like the gatekeepers to whether or not my experience was even valid and worth their time.”
“They could have taken me seriously, maybe then I would not have been electrocuted and raped by my ex and dumped by the side of the road. Listened and looked at the facts I’m 4’11 [149.9cm] and 48 kilos my partner is 6’3 [190.5cm] and 95 kilos. There is no way I could hurt him and he threw me around. They took me away and put me in custody.”
A series of tapes leaked to the UK Guardian expose the appalling attitudes of some police officers and watch house officers in the Brisbane Watch House as they make racist, sexist, and other slurs.
Not surprising the inquiry found that there are often shortfalls in the QPS’s responses to DFV. In particular, when one or both of the parties identify as First Nations, LGBTIQ+, have a culturally or linguistically diverse background, are young or elderly, have a cognitive, intellectual, or physical disability, are experiencing mental health issues or have other complex needs.
The attitude to and treatment of First Nations people is particularly harrowing.
Queensland’s First Nations peoples are over-represented in the criminal justice system. While they represent about 3.8 per cent of the Queensland population (aged 10 and over), they account for 33 per cent of the prison population.
“Queensland’s colonial history and the associated violence inflicted upon First Nations peoples, communities and culture, continues to have a profound ongoing impact on First Nations peoples and their relationships with the police,” the report noted.
Elder Aunty Florence Onus, Community Development Worker with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Women’s Legal Service North Queensland, told the Commission about the strength of living memory:
“We only became citizens in 1967. So – I mean I was only eight or nine years old at that time. So, you know, the history is very fresh and the fear – so the fear of police has been something that’s historical from the first contact to where we are today. So, it’s engrained in families and communities.”
The inquiry also heard of the importance of building relationships and trust with communities from a police officer that when this was not done, it can be a barrier for victim-survivors who seek assistance from police.
The resultant reluctance to seek assistance from the police can result in a situation reaching crisis point.
The report repeatedly referred to the insufficient prioritisation of developing cultural capability within the organisation, with a recent survey showing that its members lack the foundational knowledge to understand the impacts of colonisation, racism and other historical and contemporary issues that shape how First Nations peoples experience police.
“As a result, QPS responses, at times, lack cultural awareness which leads to responses that do not always meet community expectations.”
Aunty Florence also said, “There is a need for localised cultural competency training for QPS that is face-to-face, meaningful, ongoing, locally written, and locally delivered.”
This necessity was reiterated in the Commission’s report: “For Queensland Police Service members to work effectively with and in a community, they must have an understanding of the community’s culture, history, relationship with police, and needs. This is true of all communities, but particularly essential for discrete First Nations communities and predominantly First Nations communities. Any cultural induction should be specific to that community and should be delivered by a person with cultural authority.”
It is suggested that due to a lack of cultural safety, police are not always perceived as a safe avenue of assistance for First Nations victim-survivors. “This is exacerbated by a range of factors including mistrust of police, fear of child removal, and child safety intervention, fear of death in custody risks for the perpetrator, and other systemic barriers.”
The problems go far deeper than the responses to DVF victim-survivors. The Commission found that sexism and misogyny are a significant problem within the QPS and that there is a culture of fear and silence.
These take many forms, including sexist language, bullying and discrimination. They also involve sexual harassment, sexual assault and, in some cases, rape by male QPS members of their female colleagues.
Not only does this have an impact on the careers of the women but the failings of the complaints system are so great that perpetrators go free or at best are dealt with by Local Management Resolution, a meeting in which the perpetrator is given a talking to. It can also backfire on the complainants and even harm their career prospects. In effect such behaviour is tolerated within the QPS.
“It is hardly surprising that these attitudes are reflected then in the way that those police who hold them respond to victim-survivors. It is a failure of the leadership of the organisation that this situation has been allowed to continue over many years unchecked,” the report said.
The Commission also heard that police officers may resent attending DFV calls for service when they believe it is a thankless task or that it is not “real” police business.
The Commission found that previous efforts to address these issues by the QPS had been hampered by a lack of resourcing, and reactive short-term processes. It proposes structural and cultural changes to the QPS with a holistic approach and calls for additional funding from government to implement them.
These recommendations include:
- Victim-centric, trauma-informed approaches to responding to and investigating DFV with a strong focus on community involvement, training, and accountability.
- A victims’ commissioner who should have, at a minimum, a function of assisting individual victim-survivors of DFV, including in relation to complaints about poor police responses to DFV.
- The establishment of a Domestic and Family Violence Vulnerable Persons Unit in each district, which, at a minimum, maintains a twenty-four hours per day, seven-day on-call response capability.
- The establishment of a new, independent Police Integrity Unit to investigate complaints against police officers, including complaints in relation to sexism and misogyny.
- An increase in the recruitment and retention of women, culturally and linguistically diverse, and First Nations members.
- The allocation of a Peer Support Officer for anyone making a complaint about conduct arising from sexism, misogyny or racism.
In addition, “Any cultural induction [of members of the QPS] should be tailored and specific to that community, and should be delivered by a person with cultural authority.”
The recommendations have implementation deadlines ranging from six to eighteen months. The government has indicated it supports them in principle and has provided an additional $100 million funding towards their implementation. However, the question remains: Will they be implemented in full or as with previous reports only result in superficial reforms?
If you or some you know needs support, please contact Lifeline 13 11 14, www.lifeline.org.au
To read the full report go to www.qpsdfvinquiry.qld.gov.au