Victoria Police recently announced that family violence perpetrators will be treated as seriously as terrorists and murderers.
This strategy represents a major milestone in the evolving police approach to family violence. Though family violence results in far more death and injury, terrorism is nonetheless considered Australia’s leading security threat.
The Victoria Police strategy represents an opportunity to reset security priorities by recognising family violence as the foremost contributor to the preventable death and injury of women and children.
Acknowledging family violence’s harms.
Following in the footsteps of those who have noted the similarities between terrorism and family violence – using such terms as “intimate terrorism” and “everyday terrorism” to make this point – Victoria Police’s acting chief commissioner Shane Patton said:
… the consequences of family violence are the same as terrorism … We have death, we have serious trauma, we have serious injury and we have people impacted for the rest of their lives.
However, the scope of the harms of “everyday terrorism” are far more widespread.
Between 2002-03 and 2011-12, 488 women were killed across Australia in homicides perpetrated by their current or former partners. In the previous two decades, five people were killed in terrorist attacks in Australia.
In contrast, on average at least one woman is killed in Australia each week, usually by an intimate (ex-)partner.
Family violence is the leading preventable contributor to death, disability and illness in women aged 15–44. It is responsible for more disease burden than high blood pressure, smoking, and obesity.
Victoria Police research that informed its strategy indicates that in the past six years, more than 11,000 perpetrators harmed three or more victims.
In 2016-17, there has been 16 family violence killings in Victoria. This represents 28% of all homicides.
Shifting police practice.
As the gatekeepers of the criminal justice system, police are critical in shaping the community understandings of crime. If the police don’t take a crime or threat seriously, it’s likely the public won’t either.
A few short decades ago, family violence was hidden, excused or trivialised.
Today, family violence, most typically intimate partner violence committed by men against their current or former partner, is recognised as the most prevalent type of violence against women. It is now also considered a serious crime and a pressing social issue. Changing police practices and priorities are central to this.
Until the 1980s, criminal assault in the home was, in police parlance, generally considered to be “just a domestic”. Those now labelled perpetrators of family violence were seen as having gone “a little too far with the missus”.
When women called police for help, officers either did not attend or did not intervene to protect the woman or arrest the perpetrator. Once a woman calls for help and does not receive it, or has the abuse trivialised or blamed on her actions, she is unlikely to call again.