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A letter to the Editor regarding police response to 'domestics', published in Quadrant, December 1990, pp.4-5

Mr Alan Tapper in his 'Feminism and the Family' (Quadrant, November 1990) reports the feminist view that 'domestic violence is treated by both the police and neighbours as a purely private matter.' Kindly, he later defends police on the grounds that they are, after all, only human. That is most certainly the case and a very good defence for many misdemeanours, but not this one. I can't speak for the neighbours but, as I did serve as a constable for five years, you may care to allow me to express a 'police' view about the police treatment of domestic violence.

There are two factors that make the police approach to violence in the domestic context unique, one quite minor, the other the clincher.

First, the minor one. Being human, police are naturally concerned about their own longevity. Police are dutifully instructed in recruit course about danger situations. The Number One danger situation for police in both Australia and the United States is not bank robberies or high speed chases. It is, as we termed them, 'domestics'. The reason this factor is quite minor is that police, still being human, tend to develop a blasé attitude to potentially dangerous situations which in most cases turn out not to be a personal danger. It is that attitude, of course, that in part increases the danger.

Second, the important factor. In the jurisdiction in which I worked (the ACT) and, I suspect, in most other jurisdictions in Australia, a wife is at law a competent witness, but not a compellable witness, against her husband. The same applies to a husband in respect of his wife. (There are exceptions where major crimes of violence are committed against persons under 18 years). This means that while it is perfectly open for a wife, say, to give evidence against her husband in the course of his prosecution for assault, the Court cannot require her to testify. This is in marked contrast to other witnesses who may indeed be punished for refusing to answer a question.

Well, where does this leave the police? Essentially there are three kinds of action police are limited to in any call regardless of what it's about:

Sometimes a breach of the peace is in action or an assault (often directed against police, sometimes by the victim as well as the victim's spouse) happens in the presence of police. In such cases there is no need to depart from the handling of an assault or breach of the peace that would be adopted in any other situation. But in the absence of such behaviour in police presence, the only evidence of assault is that offered by a witness who is free to later withhold it. Should an arrest occur in these circumstances, the arresting officers face a probability (not possibility) of losing the case. With no evidence other than their claims of the wife's allegations, it would be difficult to defend a suit alleging false arrest.

With these dangers clear, it is obvious why police doctrine, as I was taught in my recruit course, is to decline to arrest the offender unless either an offence is committed in police presence or the victim makes a signed statement sufficient to prove the offence. (It should be noted that this statement is not admissible in evidence in the prosecution of the offender, but would probably be admissible in the defence of police accused of false arrest as it goes to show the necessary 'reasonable grounds to believe' that an offence had been committed.)

Personally, I was astounded by the women who, clearly having been assaulted with some brutality, refused to make a statement. In such cases there seemed to be a use of the police merely as a circuit-breaker to interrupt an acute episode, with there being no intention of trying to treat the chronic problem.

Incidentally, out of the perhaps half dozen incidents of this kind where my official presence was required, two related to the abuse of men by women. The first was where a man was badly beaten by his de facto after coming home drunk from the local watering hole. It was apparently not the first time it had happened. A criminal record check on the woman revealed that she had only been out of prison for about a year, having served two or three years for the manslaughter of her husband. Doctrine was applied, possibly inappropriately in the absence of a legal marriage, but 2 o'clock in the morning is not the time to engage in fine legal reasoning. Despite being informed of his predecessor's fate, the man refused to provide a statement, preferring instead to return home. I don't think he was killed. I'm sure I would have heard about it if he had been.

In the second case I never met the woman. The man wanted to leave his wife but was too frightened. He needed to discuss his strategy while his wife was out of the house, claiming she had pulled a knife on him previously when he had tried to depart and he was convinced that she was prepared to use it. Arrangements were made for police to be present at the fateful time to protect his departure. I heard no more.

Interestingly, when I relate these stories, usually in the context of arguing against the sexist proposition that men are inherently violent and women intrinsically peaceful, the second one in particular generally attracts a snigger from the women at the poor man's pathetic impotence. It would seem that male chauvinists are not the only people with expectations as to a man's proper role.

© 1990 - Stephen Dawson