The biggest failing of my policing career, by leaps and bounds, involves a sexual assault. I am not mentioning names or specific locations, even though the incident occurred in excess of 20 years ago. I will however attempt to discuss in detail the events of the night and use it to illustrate what was then and is now a pervasive issue with police investigations and culture.
I was called to a domestic violence incident in a very rough and violent neighborhood. We had, collectively, been to the address before several times for domestic violence, neighbor disputes, parties, drugs and alcohol abuse (to name but few problems). The fact we had been there so often is in itself an indictment of what is wrong with policing. This is not the direction of this article, but why did we not get some form of social interaction into the neighborhood, or at least household?
We arrived to a silent, dark house. This is extremely disturbing. I much prefer to hear yelling, screaming, and smashing. This means you can audibly locate all parties and generally they are all alive.
We knocked and entered the house, not waiting for a response. I found a young, 20 years old, female alone in the bedroom, her clothes were disheveled, her shirt torn and hanging loosely from her diminutive frame. She was crying and clearly shaken. She had swelling under her right eye, her hair had been pulled out of a ponytail, some remnant of which remained behind. She looked at me, her gob dark brown eyes were full of sadness and fear. At some of my weakest and lowest moments I see those eyes staring at me pleading for help and understanding.
I always prided myself on my personal/professional relationship building skills. I can adapt to most situations and I switched straight on. I walked to her crouching to be at her level and asked her what had happened. Tears flowed freely. The other officers had cleared the house, it was empty. My partner stood in the doorway as I talked to the young woman.
Her partner had been out all day drinking with his mates. He had returned home and immediately started to act, ‘like a smart ass’. This led to an argument, which led to pushing this led to him slapping her and throwing her on the ground. He left only to return 10 minutes or so later apologetic and caring. She had resisted the apology and they ate dinner. After dinner she was at the sink cleaning up, he approached from behind embracing her around the waist. She shrugged him off trying to laugh it away. He grabbed her hard by the arm and swung her around. He said words to the effect of, ‘don’t push me away bitch! I want some!’
She told him no, that she was not in the mood.
He, without saying a word, grabbed her by the hair and dragged her stumbling, screaming and crying to the bedroom. He threw her onto the bed and threw himself on top of her. He ripped her shirt down, she fought and pushed and cried for help. But he was double her weight, at least, and solid. He pulled up her skirt and tore off her underwear. Here I will not go into details of what occurred, the woman was sexually assaulted. What I can say is she screamed with pain and horror. Whatever she emoted, whatever primordial scream she issued forth scared him and he got up and bolted for the door. Not long later we arrived.
Let me say at this point this sexual assault happened. It was as real as I am sitting here writing this. I remembered seeing the torn underwear, I saw her injuries. Everything she said matched the physical evidence.
Now what should have happened?
· A crime scene officer/unit should have come in and collected evidence.
· She should have been taken to the hospital where a kit should have been taken and her injuries treated.
· A counselor should have been contacted.
· She should have been linked in with domestic violence services in the area (we had a small network).
· The crime should have been given to detectives.
· They should have formally taken her statement, with a support person present.
· An emergency interim apprehended domestic violence order (ADVO) should have been applied for.
· The offender should have been searched for, using his antecedence and known associates and relatives, served with the order and arrested that night.
· Detectives or any police should have stayed with the victim at the hospital until she was finished and taken her home.
· She should have been asked if there was anywhere else she would like to stay or accommodation should have been arranged for her.
· Patrols should have checked on her address later that evening and again the next day.
What did happen?
I asked her if I could take her underwear and some photos for evidence.
She said no — she was too embarrassed.
I asked if I could take her to hospital.
She said no — she was embarrassed.
I asked if she wanted an ADVO, that I would apply for it on her behalf.
She said no — they do not work; she had had them before.
I asked if I could take her somewhere safe for the night.
She said no — he would return and destroy her stuff.
I told her we could take all her stuff with us and store it at the station.
She said no — her name was on the lease and he would trash the house.
Every question I asked her, everything I tried to do I sensed my partner in the doorway becoming more and more frustrated, more annoyed angry.
You see all those things I wanted to do take time and energy. They are not glamorous; they do not add to personal or local area command statistics. It is a pain to bag and log evidence, to document a scene, to apply for an ADVO, to take someone to the hospital and wait for them, to arrange shelter. It is all hard work. It is part of the job and should be done. But it is hard and generally thankless.
I then asked her to sign my notebook as a true and accurate record of her statement. She did begrudgingly. I told her I would type her statement, complete my statement, and hand it over to detectives. They would be in contact.
This is what happened.
I had heard this time and time again and would hear it more and more over my career. My partner stepped in:
“So, if this goes to court you will have to come, sit there all day and then get on the stand and tell them EVERYTHING (I vividly remember this being enunciated and emphasized). Their lawyer will then ask you heaps of questions about your sex life, and you have to answer it all. It will be your word against his. This could take months and months and you cannot see him while it is all happening. This is a brutal and hard process!”
While I am paraphrasing the words using an amalgam of the speech, I heard time and time again by police with the sole intent of killing an incident of silencing a victim.
I saw the victims face.
Pain and discouragement.
I cut in telling her that I would be with her the entire time and guide her through. I then rushed to get out of their before she changed her mind and wanted to take her statement back. I returned to the station and typed her and my own statement up. I forwarded it through the Station Manager and Duty Officer to the detectives.
The next day I had a message to go and see the Detective Sergeant. I went in and he told me the detectives had been to see her that morning and she had rescinded her statement and wanted all action withdrawn. This ‘police officer’, ‘detective’ sat across from me leaning back in his chair, playing with a blue pen and told me that her partner had returned overnight, and they had reconciled.
I was given an order to attend the house and get a recant statement in my notebook. I went out to the house, she was alone. I asked her to tell me what was going on. She said the detectives had outlined what the court process was like especially for ‘he said/she said’ sexual assault cases and she explained to them it was all a misunderstanding and that she was fine. I saw sadness in her eyes and fear….
but I got the statement.
I put it behind me.
While I was young and fairly new to policing and the powers above and around me dictated the outcome I should have done more.
I was the police.
I was the protector.
I was the shield, the law.
I should have forced the evidence collection, not asked but told her I was taking it. Taken her to hospital stayed with her and looked after her. I should have applied for an ADVO — I had the power to.
Never should I have sought permission.
It was my job I should have acted regardless of the opposition by my colleagues.
I should have silenced my partner and that speech.
I should have objected to the actions of the detectives.
But here is the truth.
The police create a hierarchical culture of power for a reason. The official reasoning being that it streamlines decision making which is important in emergency situations. The real reason control and compliance. A junior officer will not question a senior officer. Fear, intimidation, peer group pressure, isolating punishment, innuendo, rumor, bullying and harassment are all par for course to ensure group think. Group think makes life easier…for the lazy.
It is taught that you tell victims of crime, that you deem unworthy of court assistance or you don’t want to deal with, that the court process is a long, hard, adversarial, unfair and not really worth it for the likely outcome, which is also down played (‘it will just be a slap on the wrist!”).This is to try to get them to rescind, not report or give a statement for record only, with no further police action required (NFPAR). It is not taught at the academy, but it is certainly drilled into to probationary constables in the field.
There is no time or want to set things right, to proactively change the social situation that is faced on a daily basis. It is not about being busy, I know what busy is. There is just no want from top down. It is never discussed or mentioned. So, the pesky small stuff gets intimidated into disappearing. At least when we went to a Police Service and promoted community-based policing there was a feeling, a discussion, and a sense that we could make a difference in the lives of those we policed. This was like so many victims quickly ignored and swept away.
I regret not being stronger, not standing up for this young girl who could not stand for herself. I regret being part of a system that institutionalizes a behavior that belittles and minimizes victims because it is ‘too hard’ to do their job. I regret not rallying against this system.
I worked with some, in a minority, great police who would do the work with ethics and pride. For the most part these words were punchlines in the morality of the lazy. For all I have done since and who I am now none of it stops me seeing those sad pleading eyes — they will remain with me forever…and maybe they should.