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Police across Victoria made it clear that family violence was considered to be ‘different’ to the primary investigative mandate of their work. AAP/Tracey Nearmy

More police won’t necessarily lead to better outcomes on family violence – here’s what we need

The Victorian government is recruiting more frontline police as part of a broader drive to tackle crime in the state. Among the new recruits will be 415 officers specially trained to deal with family violence.

The efforts to change attitudes and behaviours that perpetuate family violence will take generations to show results. So, police will remain critical in the effort to tackling family violence in all its forms.

Our recent study with Victoria Police shows more than just a commitment to extra police and training is needed to improve outcomes for victim-survivors of family violence. It requires listening to frontline police to recognise how we can make steps toward better results for victim-survivors and ongoing job satisfaction for police.

Four ways to improve police responses

Our report makes four key findings for reform of police responses to family violence.

First, policing methods have to vary across a state or region. Communities are diverse and their needs are specific. Police must be responsive to this.

This means that policing family violence in inner-city areas is vastly different from regional areas. This includes the relationship between police and family members, and the likelihood of individual police having repeated contact with the same family. There are other pressures too, such as like time, crime rates and resources.

Second, police learn a lot on the job from other officers, rather than in the academy. Our research found police would make reference to ideas learned in the academy but considered their “real” training occurred once they were working.

With this in mind, family violence training must not just be targeted to new recruits, but across all levels of police. Training should also be specific, rather than generic online training modules that police complete when they find the time.

Third, police are under significant pressure – and this can undermine good intentions. In nearly every interview with police across Victoria the lack of resources was a consistent concern.

It was also clear that many frontline officers were well aware of the increasing pressure to ensure victim notification processes were followed. This is to enable victim/witnesses to be kept up to date. But this was often a source of frustration, given the challenges of maintaining this communication while managing shift work and a heavy case load.

It is critical that we understand the pressures on police. This is the starting point for recognising that in responding to situations of family violence, some police can simply become exhausted and frustrated with a situation they may view as resolvable through criminal justice interventions and separation.

This is not to excuse this attitude, but to recognise the context within which it may arise – rather than simply lecturing police to rid themselves of it.

Finally, policing intimate partner violence specifically and family violence more broadly would benefit from a significant investment in family violence units, with dedicated officers in every station.

The community is increasingly asking Victoria Police to work very differently in response to family violence. It requires an investment of time, an understanding and awareness of context (the cycle of violence, power relations, culturally diverse contexts), and close interaction with a variety of community organisations. This is in stark contrast to the other largely reactive tasks of general duties police.

Police across Victoria made it clear that family violence was considered to be “different” from the primary investigative mandate of their work.

Dedicated and trained officers who deal with cases of family violence – following them through the criminal justice process and ensuring connection with community agencies – are required if police responses are to be meaningfully improved.

A time for brave reform

This is a moment for Victoria to lead, not with piecemeal changes, but a strategic and significant reshaping of Victoria Police to recognise that family violence must be responded to with specific expertise.

This goes beyond a few specially trained officers in some major stations to a team of officers in every station.

Victoria’s Royal Commission into Family Violence recommended all family violence cases be dealt with within a specialist court setting. The same is needed for policing responses.

There have been significant shifts in community recognition of and concern about family violence. The royal commission’s recommendations offer a map for moving forward. But only significant, brave reform will lead to a complete shift in practice to enable policing family violence to be a significant, dedicated and celebrated specialisation within Victoria Police.

The National Sexual Assault, Family & Domestic Violence Counselling Line – 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week for any Australian who has experienced, or is at risk of, family and domestic violence and/or sexual assault.

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