It’s time to change police culture to improve experiences for survivors of Domestic and Sexual Violence, and prevent violence escalating into lethal risk.
Dorren Langham could still be alive if Qld had specialist police stations designed to receive victims/survivors of domestic violence, writes Kerry Carrington. Here’s how they work.
Policing Gender Violence in the 21st Century
While countries in the global north now prosecute most types of gender violence, traditional police stations and judicial systems do not always respond effectively to it, as they often operate within male dominated cultures that are ill-equipped to interact with victims and survivors.
Researchers and lawyers worldwide have thus been trying to devise alternative strategies and approaches to address gender-based violence, which could make victims and survivors feel more at ease and ensure that their cases are properly handled. One of these strategies, first implemented in countries across Latin America, involves the introduction of alternative police stations led by women.
The Rise of Women’s Police Stations
In most countries, policing is a male-dominated profession associated with strict ranks and hierarchies, and a pervasive masculine culture, as policing was restricted to men only for much of history. Even when women were permitted to join the police, they were restricted to feminine roles and not treated as equals until relatively recently. In this historical context, women police officers are disadvantaged and encounter many challenges compared to their male colleagues.
This masculine culture can adversely impact how officers respond to violence against women and girls. For instance, surveys show that when reporting acts of domestic violence or other gender-related incidents, many women experienced a lack of empathy from police officers and felt like their complaints were not taken seriously. Some were even blamed for the abuse they had endured.
With my collaborators in South America we have conducted extensive studies focusing on gender violence and how it could be prevented and tackled more effectively. The first police stations specialising in violence against women were introduced in São Paulo, Brazil, in 1985. Since then, similar stations have emerged in many countries in the global south, including Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Peru, Uruguay, India, Sierra Leone, Ghana, Kosovo, Liberia, the Philippines, South Africa, and Uganda.
These alternative police stations are designed to respond to gender violence in a more empathetic and appropriate way, ensuring that victims feel safe to share their experiences and that they are protected from their perpetrators. In the UK, the US, Australia, and other countries in the global North, on the other hand, efforts have so far primarily focused on increasing the percentage of women in law enforcement.
Like conventional stations, women-led police stations employ uniformed, armed officers who work under the authority of the state and respond to emergencies 24 hours a day, all year around. Yet women’s police stations have no holding cells, are colourful and welcoming, and designed to only receive victims and their children. This is the opposite design to typical police stations, which are designed to receive alleged offenders.
Officers working at women’s police stations receive additional, specialised training in how to respond to violence towards women following empathetic protocols informed by a gender perspective. These officers work alongside social workers, lawyers, psychologists and counsellors to ensure that victims reporting a violent crime receive all they guidance, help, and support they need. While officers at these stations are predominantly female, male officers, social workers, lawyers, and psychologists can also be recruited after they have completed the required training.
Advantages of Women-led Stations
Many studies have investigated the benefits of police stations specialised in gender-based violence, most of which focused on stations in Brazil and India. Professor Carrington and her collaborators specifically explored the impact of women-led stations in Argentina, which carry out both investigative and preventative work.
Argentina currently has two different types of police stations: common police stations (Comisaría) and police stations for women and families (Comisaría de la Mujer y Familia or CMF), the first of which was established in Buenos Aires in 1988. Today, the country has over 120 CMF stations and approximately 15 other units specialising in gender-related violence.
My ARC DP team investigated how these stations prevent gender-based violence. To do this, we conducted semi-structured interviews with staff working at ten women’s police stations in the Province of Buenos Aires. In addition, to field research to directly observe the officers at work and in the community.
Overall, we found that CMF stations prevented gender violence in three different ways, namely by working with victims and offenders to de-naturalise violence and prevent re-victimisation, by organising community events aimed at disrupting patriarchal norms that sustain gender violence, and by working with local boards to disseminate helpful resources and identify high-risk cases before they escalate into more serious, potentially lethal violence.
Reshaping Responses to Gender Violence
It is vital that police culture, which is at the core of policing failures in responding to victims of domestic and sexual violence is reshaped in the 21st century. The key advantages of victim-centric, largely women-led specialist police stations, is that more victims of gender-based violence have access to justice, are heard, and receive the help, advice and information they need to deal with the abuse they have endured.
In addition to providing victims with the empathy and support they need, these stations allow police officers of all genders to follow a different career path in law enforcement, which is based on a more diverse, multi-disciplinary, and more empathetic culturally aware approach. This could potentially encourage more women – especially women of colour – to become police officers, particularly those who would typically be dissuaded by the masculine and colonialist culture associated by traditional police work.
Past studies suggest that women-led police stations can also have substantial effects on the occurrence of gender-based crime. For instance, in metropolitan Brazil, the presence of women’s police stations was found to reduce femicide rates by 50% for women aged between 15 and 24, and reduce the overall rate by 17%.
Its time. Time to change police culture at its core. Time to trial specialist police stations to receive victims/survivors of domestic and sexual assault. Together we can do this.