Recently, senior members of the Victorian Police Force (VicPol) gave evidence to the Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence.
As they did so, they knew that some of their colleagues, both past and present, were perpetrators of this form of violence.
They would also have known there was a lot more violence to come.
Cops can be very adept perpetrators of family and domestic violence if that is what they choose to do.
They have the training, skills, knowledge and experience to intimidate and exercise power and control over others, to physically hurt a person without leaving marks and reduce the risk of arrest and prosecution because they know what to hide.
Place these attributes within a police culture with an inappropriate emphasis on defensive solidarity, silence and blind loyalty to other colleagues, then there is a possibility that a colleague’s ‘domestic’ may not be investigated as it should.
As for their victims, they are in the vulnerable position of having to seek protection from the very same organisation the perpetrator belongs to – ie. the police.
They could well ask: Will the police just look after their own? Are the attending officers abusers themselves or from the same police station as the perpetrator? Where can they be safe if the perpetrator knows where the refuges are? Can they track our whereabouts?
No other victims of family violence face this dilemma.
Police organisations and unions, domestic violence support agencies, the medical establishment and sections of the media are all aware of the violence within Australian police families.
Section 2.5.8 of the VicPol’s own Code of Practice, under the heading “Police Employees and Family Violence”, details what steps must be taken by VicPol’s members if they encounter this form of violence.
Occasional media reports have also highlighted the issue.
The reality is that police officer domestic abuse (PODA) is just not talked about, especially by the police.
To do so might undermine the bedrock of their authority – the community’s trust and confidence in its ability to enforce the law in a fair and impartial manner, to protect persons and property and for its members not to be seen to be above the law.
What also prevents an open and honest discussion about PODA is the lack of readily accessible data on its incidence.
Not even the Australian Bureau of Statistics collects data on family violence by a perpetrator’s profession.
Such information as is available mainly originates from the USA or the UK and is mainly a result of a widely publicised incident in each country where serving police officers killed family members and then themselves.
Fortunately, tragedies like these have not occurred in Australia. Yet!
So what is the situation in Australia? Does PODA really happen? How common is it?
In March 2015, I lodged a Freedom of Information (FOI) request with VicPol. I finally received the data in July.
Data, extracted from VicPol’s Register of Complaints and Serious Incidents Database (ROCSID), revealed that in the calendar years 2011- 2014, a total of 190 Victorian police of various ranks were respondents to a court issued Family Violence Intervention Order (FVIO).
FVIOs are issued to ensure the safety and property of family members and the protection of children from further violence by the perpetrator.
The breakdown by year and number of FVIOs was:
That’s an average of 48 FVIOs per year, or almost one a week.
However, these statistics are very likely to be a gross under estimate of the actual incidence of PODA.
The FOI data also showed that between 2011-2014, a significant number of police officers had breached a FVIO.
The breakdown by year and number of breaches was:
That’s an average of 10 breaches per year, almost one in four of the total FVIOs issued.
No data was able to be extracted from the database on the sex of the police officers involved.
As to the police hierarchy, in 2013 and 2014, the most frequent rank/DVIO ratio was that that of Senior Constable; a rank with at least four years of front-line experience.
This finding is consistent with American anecdotal evidence that officers are more likely to become abusers over time, due to a combination of their training, traumatic experiences and internalisation of the para-military, male-dominated culture, than as a result of some pre-existing, pre-induction personality trait to dominate, control and exercise power over others.
A police officer’s role is one which involves high levels of personal responsibility for the welfare of others and the potential exposure to dangerous situations and aggressive, abusive people.
These demands, if not satisfactorily addressed, can lead to mental illnesses such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and self-medication with alcohol. Both are associated with family violence.
Nevertheless, there is no excuse for abuse.
The Victoria Police Annual Report 2013-2014, on page 36, says it is committed to progressively improving its response to family violence.
It could start by publicly acknowledging the existence of PODA, collecting relevant statistics and posting on its website all the policies and procedures to do with it.
May the force be with it.
* Alan Corbett is a former teacher, and the founder of the ‘A Better Future for Our Children’ Party. He served in NSW Parliament as an MLA from 1995 until his retirement in 2003.