'It was nine hours of trauma.' How police misidentify victim-survivors as perpetrators of violence.

This story includes descriptions of alleged sexual assault and domestic violence that may be distressing to some readers.

On the Northern Beaches of Sydney, behind closed doors, Laura* quietly endured horrendous physical abuse at the hands of her husband. Then there were the sexual assaults, the choking, the severe financial abuse... 

As she watched her husband scream at her children, the people she was supposed to protect, she felt helpless. She kicked at the back of his thong in a futile attempt to make him stop. She went to the police, expecting them to protect her, to take her statement about the abuse she had finally mustered up the courage to report. Instead, she was arrested - she had assaulted him, they said. 

Laura was charged, locked up and strip searched. An AVO was taken out against her.

In Brisbane, Bianca*, an Iranian woman on a PhD scholarship, was raped and beaten by her husband. When she arrived at the police station, she was covered in bruises from the attack. “Oh,” said the officer. “Women get bruises playing tennis, then come to the police to get their husband in trouble.”

Watch: Women And Violence: The Hidden Numbers. Post continues after video.

Video via Mamamia

When they attended her home to investigate, her husband turned the tables, inventing assaults he alleged she committed. Protection orders were taken out against them both. 

Bianca was ordered to leave her home within 20 minutes. 

Following years of sexual assault and coercive control, Jacinta* and her husband were separated but living under one roof. She’d reported the assaults to police multiple times, but he hadn’t stopped. Even their separation hadn’t stopped him from coming into her room, assaulting her and gaslighting her into confusion. 

One day, she’d had enough. She told him he had to leave and raised the topic of property settlement. But he didn’t go. Instead, he reported her to police, accusing her of assault and intimidation. She was held by police for nine hours. 

“It was nine hours of trauma. Deeply painful, not only emotionally, but physically too. I was put into a tiny charge room cell and stripped of my dignity,” Jacinta shares.

The police didn’t check her history, so when they questioned her, they had no idea about the sexual assaults she had previously reported.

“I was shown the power imbalance the police impose. I had a constable open the door to my cell and vocalise his opinions of me, telling me how he thought I should behave.

“I have had trauma responses to seeing police since - deep anxiety attacks that are prolonged. I am now taking anti-depressants.”


A growing problem 

Laura, Bianca and Jacinta are all clients of Brigid Justice, a law firm whose sole focus is providing low-cost legal representation to female victim-survivors of domestic violence perpetrated by men. 

While the bulk of their work is family-law related, the team has observed a new trend emerging. It’s called police misidentification and involves female victim-survivors of domestic violence being falsely identified as perpetrators. They’re often arrested, held in custody and sometimes formally charged. 

Anni Gethin is the founder of Brigid Justice and says police misidentifying domestic abuse victims as the perpetrator is increasingly common across all Australian jurisdictions.  

“Perpetrators frequently make fabricated, exaggerated or trivial reports to police, and many police will take these reports at face value,” Gethin says. 

“We don’t know the full extent of the problem, but recent reports in Tasmania show police misidentification could be as high as 20 per cent.”

There have been few studies on police misidentification, however domestic violence support groups have been warning about this invisible phenomenon for years. They’re on the front lines, after all, witnessing the aftermath and supporting women through the additional trauma of being accused of the very thing they’re trying to escape. Not to mention the practicalities of trying to manage the legal and financial fallout of such accusations. 


The obvious question, then, is why? Why is this happening? How does a victim of domestic violence end up becoming accused? 

The reasons are varied. 

We know many women don’t report domestic violence at its onset. By the time police come into the equation, female victims are often terrified. They’re angry. They may be inconsolable, desperate or fighting back.

Unfortunately, police may be unable - or unwilling - to spot the difference between aggression and a natural response to trauma, particularly when the perpetrator is calm and collected, as they often are.

“Police have a very poor understanding of domestic violence, especially the gendered aspect - 80 to 90 per cent of perpetrators are male,” says Gethin. 

It can be easier to believe the "calm, rational male" over the distressed, traumatised female, and police misogyny can make this tendency even worse, especially if they want to see someone arrested and close the case.

It's called DARVO

A common perpetrator tactic is to accuse their victims of the crimes being committed against them. This is known as DARVO - deny, attack, reverse victim and offender.

“This tactic is one used by perpetrators against victims to control them and the situation, publicly humiliate the victim and undermine victims who accuse perpetrators of a crime,” says psychotherapist Julie Sweet. 

Worse still, the role reversal of presenting the victim as the perpetrator covertly silences the victim using shame, fear and guilt. 


“All the while it being false, deceptive and untrue,” says Ms Sweet.

Victim blaming ensues and the victim’s credibility then becomes the focus, as opposed to the perpetration of violence and abuse - which is usually the reason for police attendance in the first place. 

“I’ve supported clients who have been victims of intimate partner violence and family and domestic violence who have been counter charged when reporting abuse, only to then themselves be incorrectly labelled the aggressor, sometimes even resulting in being charged, and having to defend themselves through the criminal justice system,” Sweet says.

Traumatic experiences like this can cause victims to avoid reporting their abusers in the first place or, worse still, withdraw their initial report. 

“The risk is not being believed and then having the true perpetrator retaliate, defame and, in some cases, detrimentally damage the victim’s integrity, truth and sense of self.”

Sweet believes a lack of education, training and trauma-informed clinicians, first responders, legal representatives, police - even the media - are key contributing factors to this destructive cycle.

“Collectively, the focus needs to shift away from the victims and towards the perpetrators,” she says.

“[It's about] understanding that such matters rarely have a witness or third party to give further evidence, and therefore the only person to gain is the perpetrator, not the victim.”


Get it right 

To combat this frightening and apparently escalating trend, Brigid Justice has launched its Get It Right campaign.

The aim of the campaign is to raise awareness and influence change, in order to reduce the number of police misidentifications of victims as perpetrators in the following ways:

  • Highlighting the issue and documenting its extent, including case studies and the reasons police get it so wrong. 
  • Developing practice guidelines in conjunction with police to help them identify flagging issues and reduce the amount of misidentification. 
  • Evaluating the effectiveness of the current and future police domestic violence victim identification guidelines.

“The impact on women misidentified is horrendous, compounding the trauma they have already experienced - PTSD, panic attacks, despair and suicidal ideation, a profound sense of injustice, a feeling of ‘no-one will keep me safe’, profound mistrust in police,” says Gethin. 

“They may avoid reporting the abuse from the abuser due to the mistrust and being triggered by going anywhere near the police. They may have a feeling the abuser has ‘won.’”

Then there are the practical repercussions - the cost of obtaining a lawyer, the time taken to go to court and any associated childcare requirements, informing their employment, and the very real risk of a criminal record.

“Victims lose trust in the police, perpetrators are emboldened; it hugely impedes society’s efforts to stop domestic violence, as the police are effectively helping abusers to abuse their victims.”

Bound by the confines of a system that doesn’t know how to support the nuanced nature of domestic violence - that’s how Jacinta describes her experience.


“It has been a humiliating and unjust practice by police, supporting my perpetrator. I would have expected that a system was in place to check prior reporting, but - perhaps due to their inexperience - the constables I dealt with didn’t think to bother.”

An invisible problem with a lasting impact

“You never expect uniformed police to ambush you, let alone in your home.”

Michelle heard a pounding at her front door just before 8am. There were two police officers. The older of the two brandished a piece of paper, barking that they there to investigate her. She’d been accused of several serious charges by the man who was her perpetrator. 

“I’m standing on my front doorstep, the neighbours stop and stare. The police aggressively tell me that I ‘must come with them to the station’ - a station in a distant suburb - to be interviewed. 

“They refuse at first to tell me what my ‘crimes’ are.”

Crying and shaking, Michelle showed the police the Apprehended Domestic Violence Order taken by police against her perpetrator eight months earlier, as well as the police report documenting his arrest and charge, and his sentencing six months earlier. 

“I explain to the hard-faced cops that this is the same man who faced local criminal court in a case brought by police - not by me - after a violent criminal assault that almost killed me.”

They shrugged, still refusing to tell Michelle what she was being accused of. She gathered her senses and called a friend who is a lawyer. 


“Whilst my lawyer friend is on the phone with the constable, I ask his younger colleague if he has had any training with regards to dealing with victim survivors of domestic abuse. He tells me he once did a half-day course.

“My lawyer says that my perpetrator has alleged to police that I have contacted ‘his sister’s employer’ - he has no sister - that I have ‘looked at the LinkedIn profile of his new partner’ and that I had ‘sent him a copy of a magazine in which he had briefly appeared’. I had not.”

Fortunately, Michelle had the privilege of legal representation, resulting in police further investigating her perpetrator and ultimately dropping the case.

“None of this mattered when police pounded on my door,” says Michelle.  

“I was forced to engage, at personal cost, a lawyer to handle the matter.

“I was deeply disturbed and remained distressed by their ambush and accusations.”

Before police attended Michelle’s home, they had accessed her Facebook accounts to verify an accusation she had ‘liked’ a post of her perpetrator’s brother. On the other hand, they never once checked the validity of his claims - including the existence of a sister or his history of stalking and harassment.

“Unsurprisingly, I never received an apology from the police. To this day, I feel a wash of dread and anger whenever I see police casually strutting."


Time for change

“Working out who is the primary victim and perpetrator should not be that difficult,” says Gethin.

“We know most of the time the victim is female, the perpetrator is male - police need to be cautious about men reporting domestic violence where there is a history of him as the perpetrator, and/or when the complaint is trivial or implausible. 

“Police first need to look at the history - have there been previous reports of domestic violence? Has one party made retaliatory or unfounded reports in the past? Are there other indicators it is the woman who is the victim of domestic violence - is she isolated, does the husband control all the finances, is she scared of her husband, is there a substantial power difference, has she sought help in the past from a GP or women’s service, or called 1800 Respect?”

Jacinta’s case is currently before the court. While Brigid Justice made representations to police on her behalf, Jacinta was only offered a plea deal, which would require her to agree to the assault charges in order to drop the intimidation charge.

While Brigid Justice will seek costs against the police, and Jacinta is considering taking action against them for wrongful imprisonment and false arrest, the impact on her mental health can’t be taken away.

“She is shocked by the absolute injustice. She denies the assaults with which she was charge, but also, they are so trivial - throwing a school note and a sock - that she is in disbelief that the police pressed charges.


“It also denies her experience as a victim, as she had reported her husband sexually assaulting her to the police.”

Jacinta says she had always supported the system of police procedure. That’s now changed.

“My mistrust in their abilities is profound. I have had police knock on my door at my children’s bedtime and make me feel like a criminal. 

“Without Brigid Justice, I wouldn’t have known where to go for help. I certainly couldn’t go to police. I’ve lost trust in them.”

If you’d like to get behind the Get It Right campaign, please email the Director of Advocacy at the Brigid Project at: jeanne@brigidproject.org.au

If this post brings up any issues for you, or if you just feel like you need to speak to someone, please call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) - the national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service. It doesn’t matter where you live, they will take your call and, if need be, refer you to a service closer to home.

Domestic violence help lines:

Womensline: 1800 811 811
MensLine Australia: 1300 789 978
National Sexual Assault, Domestic Violence Counselling Service 24hr helpline: 1800 RESPECT
Lifeline: 13 1144
Family Violence Crisis and Support Service: 1800 608 122
Emergency/Police: 000

* Names have been changed to protect identities