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Should Australian States Trial Specialist Domestic Family Violence Police Stations?
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Should Australian States Trial Specialist Domestic Family Violence Police Stations?

After Coroner Bentley delivered her scathing findings of the police investigations into the murders of Hannah Clarke and her three children, as well as the murder of Doreen Langham by ex partner, she recommended that the State fund and trial specialist domestic violence police stations in Qld. Every party of the inquest into Doreen Langham, the families, the police commissioner and the police union supported the recommendation for a trial of specialist DFV police stations. This is a great start, but now everyone needs to be on the same page about what they are and how they work, so if there is a trial, they are not set up to fail. There are a number of principles that underpin how these specialist stations operate which are described below. But first, how did I get involved in the inquest into the murder of Doreen Langham?

The coroner commissioned me to provide a report about the police responses to Doreen Langham, giving me access to the entire coronial case files. There were a lot. I delivered a confidential 40 page report to Coroner after having reconstructed a chronology of the police investigation based on their statements to the QPS Ethical Standards Command, and carefully answering the Coroner’s questions. I later appeared before the Coroner’s Court on 9 March where I gave expert evidence.

In sum, over a period of two weeks, from 7 February 2021 to 21 February 2022, Ms Langham reported 5 breaches of the DVO to three different QPS police stations, two phone calls to PoliceLink, and two emergency calls to 000.   Of the 16 or more QPS officers, from three different police stations, who either interacted or responded to her repeated and increasing desperate pleas for assistance, only one responded with appropriate skill and empathy, Desk Officer, Senior Constable Craig Jolly, Browns Police Station. On 15 February he took the breaches the of temporary DVO seriously, made a report of those breaches and acted promptly to protect Ms Langham, by arranging her locks be changed.  This was an exception rather the rule of the QPS response to Ms Langham, which ranged from hostile, trivialising, to complete indifference for her safety. This illustrates that highly trained experienced QPS officers can and do respond appropriately to victims of DFV, but it’s a lottery. QPS also missed multiple opportunities to prevent Mr Hely from killing her and himself. In sum, there was considerable variation in the police response to Ms Langham, as there was no single case manager, or single police station or team that took responsibility. 

Alternatively had Ms Doreen Langham been able to report to a specialist DFV police station, her matter would have been dealt with by the same station throughout ensuring continuity and information sharing. She would have been provided with an integrated victim centric response from a multi-disciplinary team of police, social workers, counsellors and lawyers. She would have been met initially by a trauma informed counsellor, taken seriously, and listened to without judgement. Then she would have been interviewed by a police officer who works from a gender perspective and understands DFV is a cycle of coercive control.  His controlling and stalking behaviours and threats to kill her would also meet the legal definition of coercive control, a form of DFV.  She would have then been provided police assistance to remove the Mr Hely from the home, and to make a DVO application.

Before leaving the women’s police station Ms Langham would be offered a gateway of support to legal assistance, access to emergency provisions, a safety plan, and connected with a DFV survivor’s support group with follow up meetings with a counsellor.  When Mr Hely breached the temporary DVO order, if Ms Langham had reported those breaches to a specialist police station, she would return to same station.  By this time, the DFV case manager assigned to her, would have undertaken an investigation into My Hely’s history of DFV reported by Ms Langham on 7 February. They would undertake another risk assessment, a statement about the breaches and seek a warrant for Mr Hely’s arrest and detention in custody. If he continued to breach after being released from custody, he would be taken to a male perpetrator centre, or may again be charged with a breach and remanded in custody. Ms Langham would have been kept safe during the arduous and dangerous journey of breaking the cycle of DFV and coercive control.

Without a doubt Ms Langham’s experience of the QPS as a victim of domestic violence fell far short of minimal expectations about how police should respond to DFV. The coroner concluded (as did I) that her death and that of My Hely was preventable.

How do specialist DFV police stations operate?

Specialist DFV Police Stations offer a structural solution to a structural problem. It’s a win win for everyone, police, victims, the criminal justice system, and most importantly for women, their families and communities.  Specialist police stations offer an integrated victim centric response from a multi-disciplinary team of police, social workers, counsellors and lawyers, in a one stop shop, a model proven to reduce the risk of lethal domestic violence. In turn, this leads to earlier reporting to police, increased satisfaction with police responses, and enhancements in women’s safety.

Photos 1 Reception Room, Women’s Police Station, Argentina                  

Space for children in the waiting room, Specialist Police Station, Argentina

Photo 2 Waiting room QPS Police Station, Qld.

Waiting room, QPS Police Station, Photo from QPS website
  1. Create specialist victim-centred police stations specifically designed to deliver an integrated response for victims/survivors or DFV, staffed by suitably qualified multi-disciplinary teams, of police, DFV workers, social workers and legal advisors.

Most police stations in Qld, indeed across Australia, are designed to receive and process alleged offenders. They are spartan, uncomfortable and unwelcoming spaces, especially for victims and children. Argentina’s specialist police stations are specifically designed to receive victims/survivors of domestic family violence and their children. They do not receive or detain perpetrators in custody. This is undertaken by a common police station in the neighbourhood. This ensures victims and perpetrators are segregated and do not wait in the same waiting rooms, or cross paths in the same police station.

Any specialist police station needs to be designed to be welcoming, family friendly and encourage early reporting, build trust, and provide specialist interview rooms for taking statements from victims, not alleged offenders.

Specialist police stations need to be open 24-hours a day, every day of the year,  staffed by multidisciplinary teams specially trained to respond to domestic family violence. Multidisciplinary service delivery is critical to effectively responding to the complexity of DFV (Asquith and Bartkowiak-Théron 2021; Rodgers et al 2022). Importantly responding to DFV is not something police can do alone, and many now acknowledge the need to work with relevant organisations and services to act effectively (Mundy and Seuffert 2021; QPS 2021; The Police Association of Victoria 2015). Cohesive multidisciplinary work is also central to delivering a victim-centric DFV response (Chung et al. 2018; Fine et al. 2000).

Multi-disciplinary teams need to include at a minimum: police, domestic violence or social workers, psychologists or counsellors, and legal advisors to provide an integrated response. As a team they would then possess complimentary skills to undertake competent risk assessments, to implement and interpret the law correctly, to offer an integrated response to the multidimensional problems typically experienced by those who experience domestic family violence (DFV).

2. Create a supportive command structure within the QPS whereby the police leaders of these specialist stations report to the appropriate Deputy Commissioner.

One of the keys to the success of women’s police stations in Argentina is their unique command structure, reporting to their own commissioner. This has allowed the exponential growth of critical mass in DFV police who now comprise 2300 police, and one in five police stations in the Province of Buenos Aires. It has also spawned a whole new culture of policing, with a different set of values and practices much more victim-centric and prevention focused. As a side-product women’s police stations have provided a career structure not available to women (and especially women of colour and from diverse ethnic backgrounds) integrated in traditional policing models in Argentina or indeed elsewhere (Natarajan, 2008:18; Prenzler and Sinclair 2013; Carrington et al 2019; Carrington, Sozzo, et al 2021).   They have also grown the number women entering the common police, who now comprise 41% of the entire police force in the Province of Buenos Aires (Carrington et al 2022).

Consequently, it is essential that the leaders of specialist victim-centred police stations designed to respond to DFV, report to a supportive QPS command structure that provides a career structure, and a promotes a police culture that values and rewards this model of victim centred policing, which departs significantly from the law and order focus of much public facing policing. Currently Deputy Commissioner Brian Codd occupies the responsibility for the oversight of QPS respond to DFV, and needs to be backed by both Ministers for Police, Attorney-General and Women.

3. Ensure these specialist stations are child and family friendly

The provision of a space for children is critical to encourage women to report domestic abuse to police. A separate space for children is regarded as essential to prevent the traumatisation and re-victimisation of children by having to listen to their mothers recount their experiences of domestic family violence. In the Australian context, professional childcare workers will be required during day-time hours Monday to Friday.

Space for Children, Specialist Police Station, Argentina

4. Ensure these specialist stations provide gateways to emergency support

Often victims leave their houses in emergencies and arrive with nothing. These specialist stations need to be equipped to provide basic emergency supplies or at least provide a pathway for easy access to emergency provisions, such as iphones, clothing, food, sanitary and baby products. Having domestic family violence social workers co-located with  QPS  greatly facilitates securing these forms of crisis support, as demonstrated by the co-location trial at QPS Toowoomba with DVAC (see  Rodgers et al 2022)

5. Ensure stations include culturally appropriate staffing of police and other workers mirroring community demographics

In an Australian context it is critical that a culturally diverse workforce is employed in specialist stations to provide culturally appropriate support. A history of violence by police against Indigenous people and other people of colour are key reasons for the underreporting of family violence from these groups. Other reasons include lack of understanding by police around cultural concerns and fears by victims around involvement from immigration authorities (Sergrave et al, 2021)

6. Encourage QPS to be more victim-focused, to engage in community prevention activities, ideally co-designed with local community groups, to challenge local norms that sustain domestic family violence

Officers who work in women’s police stations in Argentina are mandated by legislation to conduct community facing primary violence prevention work at least once a month.  Any implementation plan could consider the inclusion of QPS engagement in primary prevention activities, tailored to the local community and co-designed with local organisations, such as the local domestic violence service providers, schools, religious and neighbourhood and community centres. This would mean shift away from a priority focus on law and order public policing, to community policing that aims to build trust and rapport at a neighbourhood level, of the kind recommended by the Qld Productivity Commission, that concluded after an exhaustive inquiry into criminal justice in Qld:

 ‘A system more focused on the restoration of victims may also benefit offenders, and the general public, through lowering reoffending and the prison population.’ (QPS, 2019: 251).

Before Xmas the specialist police and team members go into the barrios to hand out lollies with their contact details. They know domestic family violence spikes and impacts adversely on children over Xmas. This is a strategic approach to community policing.

Female Police Officers engaged in community prevention and public awareness of #DFV, Argentina

Female officer talking with a mother about the cycle of DFV after picking her child up from pre-school,

  1. Host support groups to empower victims to break the cycle of domestic family violence and coercive control

Several (but not all) of the women’s stations we studied in Argentina hosted women’s support groups, supplemented with online self-governing chat groups. Initiated by station psychologists/counsellors, victim support groups provide ongoing empowerment and support for women. These therapeutic groups enable victim/survivors to sustain the decision to report or leave relationships, and helps survivors deal with ambiguous emotions of guilt and shame. Individual support is provided by psychologists, counsellors and other DFV workers may provide assistance in identifying personal strengths and networks, and emotional and resilience capacity building to break the cycle of DFV violence and coercive control. Where this service is already provided by a domestic violence non-government organisation, establish formal links and protocols for information sharing, and mutually supporting clients using both services.

“Break the Silence” Mural painted by survivors group, entrance to Specialist DFV Police Station, Argentina

8.  Have the power to refer men to perpetrator programs (regardless of whether an DVO is sought or in place)

Under the 2009 legislation in Argentina, as explained in this report, police have a prevention power to refer men to programs established by local authorities to “unlearn” their violent conduct, regardless of whether or not a DVO is in place, or even sought. In Australia these would be equivalent to male perpetrator programs. Consideration could be given to refer men to perpetrator programs (i.e. of the kind offered by DV Connect), in addition to or instead of a domestic violence order, should this align with the wishes of the victim/survivor, and regarded as consistent with the level of assessed risk. In Qld this may require amendments to  Domestic and Family Violence Protection Act 2012 (S. 100) to provide police with the discretion to use this alternative pathway instead of mandatory reporting requirements. This could enhance reluctant groups, like women of colour or Indigenous families, to come forward earlier in the cycle of DFV, to seek police assistance.

9. Allow victims of men’s violence to choose a specialist trained female police officer to take her statement and be supported by a trauma informed DFV co-located worker

This choice is guaranteed in Argentina, but it is not in any Australian jurisdiction. It’s a lottery, except where police have adopted co-location trials, as in Toowoomba Qld, where DFV victims are initially assessed by a DFV worker inside the station (see Rodgers, Carrington, Ryan, 2021).  When women come to a specialist police station to report a DFV, it is important they are first met by a trauma informed social worker or DV worker/counsellor.  Should they wish to report a DFV incident or breach they must be given the option of the trauma informed worker also attending the police interview, as they were in the QPS/DVAC co-location trial in Toowoomba (Rodgers, et al. 2022). They should also be given the choice of being interviewed by a female police officer, should this be their preference

10. Possess specialist training in responding to DFV delivered by an independent quality educator as an essential eligibility requirement to work in a specialist police station

Police who work at women’s stations in Argentina undertake mandatory training from a gender perspective, provided by the Gender Policy Unit.  Specialist training such as a graduate certificate, in Responding to Domestic Violence, or completed undergraduate degree with specific subjects on responding to domestic family violence, should ideally be the set standard for recruitment to a specialist police station designed to receive victims of DFV.  In-house QPS training is simply not sufficient. It may well be possible for the co-located DFV workers to offer additional training at a station level, as they did during the Toowoomba Co-location Trial between DVAC and Toowoomba QPS (Rodgers, et al., 2022)

11. Practice the art of policing through an intersectional understanding of DFV as opposed to a one size fits all approach

To work in diverse communities with a diverse range of victims/survivors specialist police stations need to inform their practices and decision-making with an intersectional, as opposed to a one size fits all response to DFV (Nancarrow, 2019).). Qld’s police and criminal justice systems need fresh approaches for responding to diverse cohorts of DFV survivors who also tend to be the most reluctant to seek help, the most suspicious of police, and/or the most disadvantaged in relation to their access to mainstream services.

The Case for a Trial of Specialist Police Stations in Australia

Police have a significant role in the front-line response to domestic and sexual violence; contact with police is often a victim’s first contact with the criminal legal system, and the broader system of services and support (Royal Commission 2016: 1; Special Taskforce 2015: 215; Voce and Boxall 2018: 1). DFV is a substantial portion of policing work with Australian frontline estimates reporting that DFV takes up 40% to 70% of police on duty time (Garcia 2021; NSW Committee 2021; The Police Association of Victoria 2015). A single attendance averages 2.5-3 hours (Queensland Government Statistician’s Office 2021), increasing to 3.5-4 hours including paperwork (The Police Association of Victoria, 2015). DFV policing and legal reforms have expanded police role and responsibility increasing the time spent on each call out and resulting in significant triaging of call outs due to chronic understaffing (Queensland Government Statistician’s Office 2021; The Police Association of Victoria 2015). Policing DFV effectively involves police taking on a joint social work and police role, requiring victim support, conflict mediation, and conducting investigation (Maple and Kebbell 2020; Rodgers et al, 2022).  No longer can they be expected to do it alone.

Specialist DFV Police Stations offer a structural solution to a structural problem. It’s a win win for everyone, police, victims, the criminal justice system, and most importantly for women, their families and communities.  They offer an integrated victim centric response from a multi-disciplinary team of police, social workers, counsellors and lawyers, in a one stop shop, a model proven to reduce the risk of lethal domestic violence. In turn, this leads to earlier reporting to police, increased satisfaction with police responses, and enhancements in women’s safety. There is considerable evidence also, that both the DFV and police workforces are supportive of their establishment in Australian jurisdictions (Carrington et al 2020; Rodgers et al 2022).

End Note

Note other than photo 2, all the other photos were taken by the research team in the field in Argentina in 2018 and 2019.

I acknowledge the ARC Research Team and the ARC DP funding that made this project possible. For details click here.

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About Author

I’m a research consultant expert in preventing & policing gender family violence with 3 decades experience.

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