At first I didn’t notice the difference. I get police media releases in my inbox every day.
Robberies, car accidents, drunk drivers, assaults, sometimes murders, this is the bread and butter of what police send notifications about.
I am on police media lists for a few states, and most of them are the same mix of generally similar crimes.
But over Christmas I noticed a startling difference.
Missing people started popping up in my email with an alarming regularity. So did domestic disturbances and assaults, and there were a couple of sieges. You know, people with guns holed up in their homes.
Before the Christmas break, there was a smattering of these types of incidents. Missing people and domestic disturbances found their way into my inbox on a semi-regular basis.
But now, it was every second email. Over Christmas and New Year I kept checking my email and found them sitting there waiting for me. Another missing person, another family argument that ended in violence.
It was heartbreaking.
We are told regularly that Christmas is not an easy time for everyone. That the pressures and strains of getting family together, mixed with alcohol, and financial stress can be an awful mix for some.
Here, in my inbox was the proof.
Missing people ranged from five-year-old to 70, assault and attempted murder charges between people “known to each other” and in a couple of instances, missing people that ultimately were found again, deceased.
It is hard not to see the pattern once you first notice it, and so with every buzz of my phone, every bleat of my computer my heart would sink.
Around 35,000 people go missing in Australia each year, that’s roughly one person every 15 minutes. The vast majority are quickly returned to their loved ones. Roughly 1600 are long-term missing (more than six months).
The data on missing people isn’t broken down to monthly statistics, and is not entirely reliable — some people might go missing more than once — so there’s no way to know for sure if the spike I noticed is real or not.
But there is plenty of evidence that domestic violence ramps up at Christmas. As far back as 10 years ago Victoria Police were warning of this problem.
“Victoria Police statistics show an alarming increase in the number of incidents of family violence reported to police during the Christmas and New Year period,” a press release from 2005 reads.
That hasn’t changed.
In 2010 Victoria Police had 126 cases on Christmas Day alone. One domestic violence-related police call-out every 10 minutes.
In December 2015, the CEO of Rape and Domestic Violence Services Australia, Karen Willis, said the Christmas surge continues to be a problem.
“We will certainly have nonstop calls around domestic violence that’s occurred around that period of time and police from three o’clock on Christmas Day in the afternoon, their calls just go manic as well,” Willis told the ABC.
“We will have 200 shifts, eight hours each, on every week over this period and we know that we’re not going to get anywhere near answering every single call to the service.”
As a junior reporter in Melbourne years ago, I worked the Christmas Day police rounds shift two years in a row.
For the most part, the police didn’t have much to report. When I’d call in to check on things, I’d usually get a response along the lines of “nothing for you, just some family disputes”.
As I was making the last call of my shift one year, the officer on the other end of the phone sighed and said, “We’ve got an emerging situation in Geelong”.
It was a siege. A man with a knife was threatening to kill his partner. I stayed at work and sat nervously at my desk, drafting a story about it.
About 45 minutes later I got a call saying it had fizzled out, and the man had been detained.
“Don’t worry about writing it up,” the night shift reporter told me. “It’s Christmas, go home and be with your family. If they want it — I’ll do it.”
So I left the office and caught a cab to family celebrations, where everyone was smiling and laughing and talking over the top of each other.
I thought about how lucky I was.
Over the last few days my inbox has largely returned to normal. There are more robberies and driving offences. Some drug raids and affrays. A couple of awful one-punch tragedies.
Some of the missing have returned. The “located” emails coming almost as regularly as the “missing” ones. The way we work has changed so much since I was a cadet on Christmas police rounds, making calls and clocking off.
The 24-hour nature of our smartphone-attached work email accounts means I got every update, from around the country, on every incident. Whether I was working at the time or not.
It enabled me to step back and see the patterns, and what I saw was the true face of just how hard the holiday period can be.