GREG AUSTIN: Counter-terrorism lessons for family murders

Jul 9, 2018

It is time to police family violence perpetrators as rigorously as we police terrorists. We can learn from the country’s successes in counter-terrorism work and perhaps apply some lessons to the family violence challenges.

Governments and parliaments across Australia stand condemned for their persistent inability to deliver basic protections in the face of complex challenges of our time to key population groups: victims of family violence, child victims of sexual assault and related pornography production, indigenous people, victims of cyber crime (including induced suicide of children and teenagers through cyber bullying), and victims of white collar crime, including gross financial abuse by banks and insurers.

The arrival of new types of crime, especially cyber crime, the very low success rate of police action in this area, and the immense challenge of stopping online bullying, suggest that the time may be ripe for a complete rethink of what sort of policing forces we need.

Above all, let us urgently rethink the sort of force we need to protect victims of family violence and to treat the perpetrators with the psychiatric treatment (or confinement) they need, or the punishment they deserve.

Governments that really care might look at the latest research on the subject. Take for example, a 2018 article which found that “police attitudes [in Victoria] towards incidents of intimate partner violence [family violence] remain overwhelmingly negative”. The police simply don’t want this mission to be a part of police work. The scholars assessed that this attitude is so consistent that it presents a “significant barrier, possibly insurmountable, to attempts to reform the policing” of family violence.

The inevitable consequence for these scholars is that “specialisation via a commitment to dedicated intimate partner violence units – implemented more consistently and comprehensively than Victoria Police has to date – extends the greatest promise for effective policing of intimate partner violence in the future”.

This recommendation is heading in the right direction, but will never work for the simple reason that it is still the police leadership (resistant to the mission) who are making decisions about resources and training. And most states already have some sort of specialised police units.

If Australia can set up a new paramilitary force, Border Force, to respond to unique new challenges of illegal immigrants arriving by sea, surely we have the wit in 2018 to find a new institutional response (a new type of policing force) for the family violence challenges.

The first challenge to overcome is the persistent belief that the “domestic” or “family” environment is a unique form of crime where acts of violence and damage to victims is somehow less brutal and less criminal than acts of violence committed against strangers. This attitude is deeply entrenched in Australia, and it is this attitude that results in police resistance to the mission of protecting its victims. This old-fashioned belief even seems to appear core to a current practice where police temporarily detain perpetrators of violence while their victims are allowed to pack their bags and leave the scene without charges being laid.

What happens, for the sake of argument, if we take the moral view that acts of violence against family members supposedly loved by the perpetrator are in fact more heinous crimes than such an act against strangers. This view can easily be justified by the fact that family violence occurs repeatedly-it is most often repeat torture of the victim(s) through “imprisonment”-whereas most acts of violence against strangers do not amount to torture and are over in a short space of time.

What happens if we add to that the moral perspective that in family violence, the perpetrators we are dealing with people who are every bit as evil as terrorists, and suspected terrorists.

In 2018, Tasmania provided a national first by introducing the option for a magistrate to mandate wearing by family violence perpetrators of trackable ankle bracelets (as for terrorists) even if the person has never been convicted of an offence. The only requirement is that the person is the subject of an allegation of sustained and serious family violence. The courts and governments are on a very promising track here.

If the traditional police services, even with new dedicated units, can’t be effective against family violence, and don’t want the mission, then take it away from them. What would we put in its place?

One answer may be an independent, mobile force at the national level (with electorate-based offices) that, like ASIO and the AFP in terrorism cases, responds to the locality where each new threat arises. The new force should have powers of arrest and detention every bit as powerful as those that ASIO and the AFP have for terrorism cases. Like ASIO, the new force would need to be set up with a budget that corresponds in scale to the volume of murders and repeat physical violence we are seeing. The new force would have specialist psychiatrists in large numbers, and its use of mental health laws provisions for involuntary detention would be a significant part of the operations against perpetrators.

Sounds crazy and impossible, not least because Australia can’t even address its mental health needs as currently understood. But I do think we can work out something novel that provides far better protections for our tortured and terrorised victims of family violence.

“In 2016–17, about 72,000 women, 34,000 children and 9,000 men seeking homelessness services reported that family and domestic violence caused or contributed to their homelessness.” AIHW 2018. At least one woman is killed every week in Australia by a partner or former partner. No statistics are available for violence by other members of the family that is not the partner (parent, sibling or child). Only poor statistics exist on domestic violence and sexual abuse against children in Australia.

Greg Austin is a Professor in the University of New South Wales Canberra, specialising in international security and public policy, especially for cyber space issues. He contributed this piece based on research about policing priorities and effectiveness in Australia for terrorism and cyber crime.

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