Police are too often failing to take action against cops who commit domestic violence, fuelling a culture of impunity in forces across the country and putting victims at risk, an ABC News investigation has found.
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 charged||Force size|
|New South Wales||11||17,111|
*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 pensioner, kicking 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.”
For many women, there's no question the nature of police work has shaped their partner's abuse. ABC News: Janelle Barone
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.
When Lucy went to the police station to make a statement, all she wanted was for her husband to leave her alone: “For the violence to stop, for someone higher up in the ranks to tell him to stop.”
She handed over her diaries, phone records, and photos of the physical injuries she said he’d caused, and left having been assured she’d get an “urgent” AVO. Weeks later, though, she was called in and informed she didn’t have enough evidence and that, because she’d sworn at her husband, police believed there had been mutual conflict.
Lucy’s support worker was shocked. “In my opinion her evidence showed a pattern of abusive behaviour by her partner, who she’d been in fear of for a long time. Hers was one of the higher-risk cases I have dealt with,” she said. It was “devastating” for Lucy, she added, including because her partner was, per police protocol, made aware of the complaint raised against him.
“Because no AVO was issued, it just gave him a green light — he knows there will be no ramifications for his ongoing abuse, which is seriously affecting her mental health. He still taunts her, saying, ‘You can contact the police all you like, look what happened last time’.”
It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that in some states police are significantly less likely to be named as respondents on domestic violence protection orders, or charged with breaching them. In Queensland, 84 officers were recorded as respondents on domestic violence orders between 2015 and 2019 which, according to the Queensland Police Service (QPS), equates to less than one per cent of the force.
“Compared to the general population, police officers are 85 per cent less likely to be recorded as a respondent on a domestic violence order,” a QPS spokesperson told ABC News in a statement. QPS takes “a strong stance” against domestic violence, the spokesperson said: “The QPS acknowledges that no domestic and family violence incident is acceptable but the strong discipline and oversight regimes of the QPS results in police officers being 95 per cent less likely to commit a breach of domestic violence order when compared to the general population.”
Are police less likely to breach orders or are they less likely to be reported and charged for breaching them? “To me, such low numbers indicate what we already know,” Ms O’Malley said. “That many women in relationships with police officers don’t talk about or report domestic violence. To me, higher numbers would suggest that this is an organisation that makes it safe for victims to report breaches, and that police take them seriously.”
Calls for reform
The “web of protection” around police officers accused of domestic violence — or at least the perception of one — “massively” exacerbates the risk to victims, says Lauren Caulfield.
“Responses by police that collude with or shield officers who perpetrate violence compound the power and control dynamics of family violence by creating a culture of impunity around it,” she said. Not only are abusive officers not being held accountable, she added, but women are “being forced to avoid or navigate service systems to manage danger and keep themselves and their children safe”.
“It’s not just the rates of violence that are a problem, but the immense power differentials and the types of family violence that police perpetrate,” Ms Caulfield said. “Police are trained in the use of force and have widespread authority and access to firearms, databases — things that when weaponised in a family violence context make such violence by police terrifying, high risk and very difficult to escape.”
For this reason advocates are now urging that state police forces develop specific policies and protocols that recognise the difficulties victims can face in coming forward with allegations against officers, and protect the integrity of investigations. For example, though some state forces “conflict out” matters involving police to other stations, most states do not formally require such steps to be taken.
“I think the practice of police investigating one of their own — even in neighbouring commands — is problematic. It puts a lot of pressure on the investigating officer to investigate their colleague,” Ms Thompson said.
“Obviously many police officers will do the right thing and take the investigation seriously, but others could easily be swayed by their bias. We need to ensure police have robust policies in place so that transparency is increased, potential bias is eliminated and alleged perpetrators who are police are treated the same as perpetrators in the general community.”
But some believe even that wouldn’t completely address all the issues.
In Rosie O’Malley’s experience assisting partners of police on the Gold Coast, officers accused of domestic violence have been investigated by police from different stations, in line with Queensland Police protocol. “In some cases that has worked well,” she said: the women were taken seriously, supported through formal or informal reporting processes and satisfied with their outcomes. “But on a number of other occasions it really hasn’t made any difference.”
Ideally, Ms O’Malley said, victims could always report to — and have their allegations investigated by — a completely independent panel of qualified experts: “It would have to be a standing committee or experts who can do a proper investigation external to police.”
‘We have not always got it right’
A QPS spokesperson said all domestic violence matters involving police are referred to its Ethical Standards Command for assessment and serious matters are overseen by the Crime and Corruption Commission, an independent body.
“The QPS has a rigorous process of reporting these matters, supporting victims and prosecuting where sufficient evidence exists,” the spokesperson said. “Police are liable to the same prosecution processes as any person who commits acts of domestic violence. They are also liable to internal investigations and sanctions if found to be acting in a way that is contrary to the high standards of the organisation.”
In a statement, Assistant Commissioner Mark Jones said the NSW Police force treats domestic and family violence “extremely seriously” and is committed to using all lawful means to keep victims safe.
“As with any incidents of domestic and family violence, matters involving police officers are fully investigated and appropriate action is taken,” Mr Jones said. “If deemed appropriate an investigation may be referred to another command for investigation, however this is considered on a case-by-case basis.”
Lauren Callaway, newly appointed Assistant Commissioner of Family Violence Command for Victoria Police, said figures showing “vast disparities” between how police accused of family violence in her force are processed compared with the general community are disappointing. “We know that as a reflection of the broader community, the Victoria Police workforce is likely to have victims and perpetrators of family violence within its ranks,” Ms Callaway said. “Any attitudes that accept this inappropriate behaviour have no place in our organisation.”
Ms Callaway said Victoria Police has been developing a program of reforms to improve its response to police perpetrators, better support victims and manage conflicts of interest (this will be examined in more detail in a forthcoming article). In some cases, she said, officers from other stations or commands are called in to investigate family violence matters involving police employees, and Professional Standards Command has oversight of the investigation.
“One of the worst things for me to hear would be that a victim of a police perpetrator has been discouraged by the offenders’ colleagues from reporting family violence. This would be simply unacceptable,” Ms Callaway said. “As an organisation, we are continually focused on supporting victims of family violence and holding perpetrators to account regardless of who they are. We have not always got it right, but our commitment to continual improvement never waivers. This is why we come to work every day — to keep people safe.”
Community confidence, cultural change
But there’s more than victims’ safety at stake. When a senior cop in Queensland was stood down amid an investigation into alleged domestic violence in July, the Police Minister Mark Ryan said he was confident high standards would be kept, that the right thing would be done. “I trust the system,” he said. “It’s very robust, with lots of checks and balances.”
Yet it’s clear victims and their advocates do not share the same trust, to the extent that domestic violence workers often avoid consulting police in cases involving abusive officers altogether. For many, there’s a disconnect between what senior officers at the top say they’re doing to address domestic violence and what happens on the ground, in police stations around the country.
Some believe that lack of faith is a problem police need to face up to, particularly given they’re at the forefront of responding to domestic violence, which takes up as much as 60 per cent of police time.
“There is a double aggravating factor when police commit domestic violence,” Ms O’Malley said. “Not only have they abused the trust of their partner and children, they’ve also abused the trust of the community because here was somebody who was supposed to be upholding the law and yet they’ve broken it,” she said. “So if that is not taken seriously it has the potential to undermine community confidence in police.”
Still, harmful police cultures are notoriously difficult to shift.
“Police might think that by exposing these problems community confidence in them will be undermined, but the opposite is true,” Ms O’Malley said. Police, she added, need to confront any instinct to dismiss or cover up abuse by officers — as well as their fear and scepticism of victims. “I would start by asking the partners who have experienced violence by police what they need, what they want,” she said. “Find out how you can be a resource to them.”
Many just want their partner’s violence to stop, and to be believed. Amelia said she tolerated her husband’s abuse for years because going to the police for help didn’t feel like an option. It wasn’t until after she’d separated from him — and her lawyer urged her to seek protection — that she took steps to report his behaviour.
“Even the day I did go in to report it, the domestic violence officer said, ‘It’s really hard for us when you’ve just come out of nowhere, you’ve never sought help before’. And I was like, it’s really hard for you? As if I was going to come down here as the wife of a senior officer and report him. I never even told my family — it felt shameful,” she said.
“Now I look back, I do think it was hard for me to see what was really going on because he was in this position of authority, I just trusted he was this upstanding member of the community ... he was so well respected in his job. And in my heart I just thought he was struggling with stress from his job, that things would get better.
“But then he’d go on another rampage around the house — he’d throw plates and call us names and fall asleep drunk on the couch — and I’d clean it all up.”
*The names of victim-survivors have been changed for legal and safety reasons.
Family and domestic violence support services:
- 1800 Respect National Helpline: 1800 737 732
- Women’s Crisis Line (NSW): 1800 656 463
- Safe Steps Crisis Line (Vic): 1800 015 188
- Men’s Referral Service: 1300 766 491
- Mensline: 1300 789 978
- Lifeline (24-hour Crisis Line): 131 114
- Relationships Australia: 1300 364 277
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