Newly appointed New South Wales Police Commissioner, Karen Webb, has faced significant criticism of the NSW Police Force’s ability – or, rather, inability – to respond promptly, fairly and properly to cases of domestic violence.
Now, that criticism has been compounded by revelations that six serving police officers have been allowed to keep their jobs despite having convictions for domestic violence offences.
Dozens of officers charged
Documents obtained under Freedom of Information legislation reveal that 27 NSW police officers were charged with domestic violence offences in 2019 and 2020.
Of those, five male officers were convicted of their charges in court, three of whom are still serving. Three other officers who were found guilty of assault charges without convictions being recorded against their names, are also still serving.
Reports show that 15 NSW police officers — 11 men and four women — were charged with domestic violence-related offences in 2021, including destroying property, assault, choking, stalking/intimidation and using a carriage service to make threats to kill.
These officers are entitled to the presumption of innocence until proven otherwise by the courts.
Time to act
Karen Webb, who took over the top job from former Police Commissioner Mick Fuller earlier this year spoke publicly at the start of her tenure, saying: “It’s now time for a new leader and a new direction. The key focus will be on victims of crime, in particular child abuse victims, victims of sexual assault and victims of domestic violence.”
Many believe it’s now time for her to act on this statement.
Surveys and reports call for action
A recent survey by Domestic Violence NSW – the state’s peak body for specialist services – found that a majority of victims felt re-traumatised or humiliated after their interactions with police, rather than supported.
These results were backed up by a scathing report from the State’s Auditor General released at the same time which made a number of recommendations, including sweeping changes to the way officers investigate claims of domestic violence made against former or serving members of the police force. The Auditor General stated in the report this was necessary to “mitigate conflicts of interest”.
Convictions undermine confidence in police force
Those working to support victims of domestic and family violence say allowing police officers convicted of DV offences to remain serving undermines trust in the NSW Police Force’s ability to respond to domestic violence appropriately.
Furthermore, it appears to show a ‘double-standard’ with the Police Chief expressing “zero tolerance” for criminal behaviour by officers, and yet failing to act in holding officers to account when they have been found guilty of criminal offences.
As has been made crystal clear over many years, it is exceptionally difficult to remove officers from the police force, even when they have been found guilty of misconduct.
This clearly needs to change. While domestic violence may have once been considered “private business” within “personal relationships”, it is now a significant social problem which needs a whole-of-community approach to solving.
This potentially means there are also valid questions to be asked around whether any employer (not just the NSW Police Force) could dismiss a person if they have been found guilty of a domestic violence offence and whether it might actually make a difference to the frightening escalation of incidents?
Of course, the standards should – must – be much higher for serving police officers who take an oath to ‘protect and serve’ – criminal behaviour and misconduct of any kind must not be tolerated. And yet it often is, at huge expense to taxpayers who foot the bill for ensuing court cases and compensation claims.
Power to dismiss officers
In New South Wales, the Police Commissioner has power to remove a police officer from the force under section 181D of the Police Act 1990, provides as follows:
(1) The Commissioner may, by order in writing, remove a police officer from the NSW Police Force if the Commissioner does not have confidence in the police officer’s suitability to continue as a police officer, having regard to the police officer’s competence, integrity, performance or conduct.
(2) Action may not be taken under subsection (1) in relation to a Deputy Commissioner or Assistant Commissioner except with the approval of the Minister.
(3) Before making an order under this section, the Commissioner–
(a) must give the police officer a notice setting out the grounds on which the Commissioner does not have confidence in the officer’s suitability to continue as a police officer, and
(b) must give the police officer at least 21 days within which to make written submissions to the Commissioner in relation to the proposed action, and
(c) must take into consideration any written submissions received from the police officer during that period.
(4) The order must set out the reasons for which the Commissioner has decided to remove the police officer from the NSW Police Force.
(5) The removal takes effect when the order is made.
(7) Except as provided by Division 1C–
(a) no tribunal has jurisdiction or power to review or consider any decision or order of the Commissioner under this section, and
(b) no appeal lies to any tribunal in connection with any decision or order of the Commissioner under this section.
The section further allows the Commissioner to take action despite any action with respect to the removal or dismissal of the police officer that is in progress under some other provision of this Act and despite the decision of any court with respect to any such action.
Can we expect change?
In response to media reporting of the issue, Ms Webb explained that while she personally has very strong views on domestic violence, she is not in a position to speak about decisions made by her predecessors. She went on to say she was “sure” officers still serving after being found guilty, or convicted of DV-related offences would have faced disciplinary action.
Disciplinary action can take several forms including demotion, a reduction in pay, or transfer of duties to a role where they are not serving members of the community directly.
A significant issue that has been a long-standing problem as far as DV experts are concerned is the fact that the NSW Police does not have a policy for dealing with domestic violence matters when a police officer is the alleged perpetrator.
For now, Ms Webb has said that she will prioritise servicing the broader community before considering whether she needs a specialist unit for dealing with perpetrators in police.
It doesn’t sound like a statement that backs up a “zero tolerance” policy. Only time will tell.