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It is a rarely discussed fact that some police officers commit domestic violence. AAP/Dave Hunt

Police perpetrators of domestic violence: what do we know and what can be done?

The Queensland Police Union is attempting to prevent an officer from being questioned by his superiors about domestic violence allegations. The allegations were filed in a protection order application at a closed court in March but later withdrawn.

The move comes after a Queensland Police senior constable was dismissed in September following allegations that he had committed acts of domestic violence, made abusive and threatening telephone calls, accessed confidential information, and failed to treat members of the community with dignity and respect.

These cases draw attention to the rarely discussed fact that some police officers do commit acts of domestic violence.

An under-reported problem

The extent of police-perpetrated domestic violence is difficult to quantify. There have been no published studies about how many Australian police commit domestic violence.

Most domestic violence matters are dealt with in closed magistrates courts, so there are few publicly available reports. Also, internal police investigations are rarely made public regardless of the result.

Studies from the US suggest that police officers may be two to four times more likely to abuse their partners. The US data dates back to between 1991 and 2006 and the studies’ methodology is flawed. But the flaw in those studies – the reliance on officers to self-report their violence – makes it likely that the problem is under-reported rather than exaggerated.

Given that perpetrators of domestic violence tend to minimise their actions, the prevalence is likely greater than the studies report. As in Australia, because police officers in the US can lose their jobs if they are convicted of domestic violence or subject to protection orders, police may fear the ramifications of reporting even when confidentiality is promised.

Why does it matter?

Police committing domestic violence is of particular concern for several reasons.

Partners of police officers may be especially vulnerable and reluctant to report domestic violence. They may feel they have nowhere to turn for assistance given the reliance on police to respond to domestic violence.

Victims of officer-involved domestic violence may decide not to report violence because they fear that police officers will side with the abuser and not investigate the matter properly.

Police officers also know the location of shelters and work with the court personnel who victims might otherwise go to for help. They have access to guns and are trained in the use of force, making them more dangerous.

The use of violence against an intimate partner may be an indication of other problems with a police officer. Studies in the US show that officers who abuse their partners are more likely to be cited in complaints for excessive use of force.

Institutional structures also operate to protect abusive police officers. Police unions in the US, like the Queensland Police Union, have fought to protect officers from being sanctioned for violence within their families. As a result, officers who commit violence against their partners continue to serve on police forces and to answer calls for assistance from victims of domestic violence.

What can be done?

Model policies do exist to govern the investigation and response to officer-involved domestic violence. However, few policing agencies have adopted them.

The International Association of Chiefs of Police’s (IACP) policy recommends ongoing education and training about domestic violence. It suggests that police collaborate with victim advocacy organisations in these training efforts.

The policy encourages police services to screen out prospective officers who have a history of domestic violence. It also recommends “periodic outreach” to family members with information on police policies, contact persons within the police service, and domestic violence support services in the community.

Queensland Police policies provide some guidance on managing complaints and dealing with access to weapons when an officer is accused of domestic violence. However, these lack the IACP’s strong focus on recruitment and protecting and supporting family members who have been abused by the officer – a focus replicated in some police policies in the UK.

More information on the scope of the problem of officer-involved domestic violence in Australia and stronger policies to protect victims who do come forward is clearly needed, regardless of the circumstances of the cases in Queensland.

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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