1. Police use of excessive force against alleged perpetrators of family violence and how this harms safety outcomes
Some PAP clients report being assaulted by police who attend a home in response to a request for assistance and/or a report of suspected family violence. These reports include experiences of verbal abuse, the use of force without lawful basis and sometimes, physical harm that requires medical attention.
The unlawful use of force in against alleged perpetrators of domestic violence by responding police officers is not only harmful to those against whom it is used, but is harmful to victims of domestic violence. Where loved ones are assaulted or treated without dignity by police, it can diminish victims’ confidence in reporting domestic violence to police in the future.
It also sends the wrong message to alleged perpetrators and witnesses to the police response, which are often children. Fundamentally, it condones violence as being acceptable. Clients who have been victims of family violence report that the use of force against their partners makes them less likely to report family violence to police.
2. The non-policing of family violence and the lack of availability of an adequate complaints mechanism to make complaints against police officers who are failing to protect families from domestic violence
PAP has assisted clients who have reported that police have failed to take their reporting of family violence seriously or have responded in a way that has harmed them or their family.
Common complaints include:
a) Failure of police to charge people who have breached orders made under the Family Violence Protection Act 2008 (FVPA);
b) Failure to serve intervention orders in a timely manner on respondents;
c) Excessive use of force used against alleged perpetrators of family violence when police respond to requests for assistance;
d) Failure to ensure medical attention is provided to all parties where needed;
e) Police acting outside of their powers under the FVPA;
f) Failure of police to follow Victoria Police Policy Manuals Rules and Guidelines, for example, not investigating offences of family violence robustly, regardless of whether the affected person makes a complaint or provides a statement;
g) Lack of collaboration between police and other agencies, including corrections and detention centres around safety concerns and lack of communication with victims of domestic violence on matters critical to their safety;
h) Poor record keeping of family violence complaints; and
i) Discriminate behavior by police in whose complaints are followed up (with Indigenous women and CALD women reporting that some police are less responsive to their concerns).
In Victoria, people who have concerns about how police are responding to family violence, can make a complaint to their local station, the Professional Standards Command of Victoria Police, or to IBAC. Complaint avenues to Victoria Police can be extremely daunting for victims of domestic violence who often already feel like they are at risk, have not been heard and that they won’t be believed, and who may have experienced under policing of their safety.
Complaint avenues to Victoria Police for respondents can be equally daunting, especially if charges are looming and/or they have a criminal history. They too, can feel they won’t be believed or won’t be listened to if they are raising complaint about excessive use of force by police. It is our overwhelming experience that the majority of our client’s complaints regarding responses to family violence are not substantiated.
We have supported/are supporting respondents and victims of family violence make complaints to both Victorian Police and IBAC, an independent statutory body with power to investigate complaints against Victoria Police members.
We are concerned that IBAC is referring complaints about how police are responding to family violence (or not responding) back to Victoria Police to investigate. The case study below is illustrative of why this matters to those who have complaints about police responses to family violence and the deleterious impact it can have on trust and outcomes.
Complaints about how police are responding to family violence should be robustly investigated by a body independent of Victoria Police and complainants should be assured that an investigation will be carried out independently from the station to which their concerns relate. When this does not occur, it can have the effect of:
a) Decreasing reporting of issues people are encountering regarding how the Victorian Police Force respond to and act upon family violence complaints;
b) More broadly, decreasing the reporting by women to police of domestic violence; and
c) Decreasing community trust in complaints bodies, which can have a compounding effect of people loosing trust in the legal system more broadly and their solicitor’s capacity to assist them.
We consider that IBAC should investigate complaints concerning police responses to family violence (be they made by respondents to family violence allegations or victims of family violence) and that a best practice response to complaints made in relation to policing responses to domestic violence is that complaints made to IBAC are not referred to Victoria Police for investigation. Where they are referred to Victoria Police, IBAC should ensure oversight of the internal referral process to ensure they are referred to a station other than the station which the complaint conduct relates.
People who, in good faith, lodge a formal complaint about something that they suffered often do so with a sense of injustice. They are often motivated by an impulse that says that “if I don’t complain, what happened to me could happen to someone else.”
Most people who spend the time and effort is takes to make a formal complaint provide a benefit to the community. Complaints from the public allow the detection, investigation disciplining and prosecuting of police members who have engaged in misconduct. When a person takes the time and effort to lodge a formal complaint, they create an opportunity for the reform of systemic failures in police practices.
Victims of family violence are in the best position to communicate what an effective response by police to family violence is and best placed to point to gaps and deficiencies in current approaches. If they are not supported in a robust complaints system, this critical window of learning is lost. In addition, police who seek to punish alleged perpetrators extra-judicially should be held accountable for their conduct.
The abuse of force or power has a profound and detrimental impact on all those who experience it, their families and entire communities. It undermines safety, self-worth and belonging and it erodes faith in the institutions of democracy and the rule of law.