NSW police officers convicted of domestic violence have kept their jobs, despite force’s claims of ‘zero tolerance’

Police Commissioner Karen Webb says she has “zero tolerance” for domestic violence but that attempts to sack officers who break the law are not always successful.(AAP: Bianca De Marchi)

At least six senior NSW police officers who recently committed serious domestic violence offences have kept their jobs, shocking victim advocates and raising questions about the force’s commitment to addressing the scourge of abuse within police ranks and in the broader community. 

Documents obtained by ABC News under Freedom of Information reveal 27 NSW police officers were charged with domestic violence in 2019 and 2020. Of those, five male officers were convicted of their charges in court, three of whom are still serving — including a senior constable convicted of two counts of assault occasioning actual bodily harm, two counts of common assault and breaching his AVO. Three other officers who were found guilty of their assault charges without conviction are also still serving.

A further 15 NSW police officers — 11 men and four women — were last year charged with domestic violence offences including destroying property, assault, stalking/intimidation, choking and using a carriage service to make threats to kill, documents show. The 2021 data is similar to that obtained in previous years, with 16 officers charged with domestic violence in 2020 and 11 in 2019.

Police Commissioner Karen Webb, who was formally sworn in to her role in February, said she had “zero tolerance” for domestic violence but that attempts to sack officers who break the law were subject to appeal, and not always successful.

“Obviously I haven’t had to adjudicate on any of these matters — I’ve been Commissioner for the last 60-odd days,” Commissioner Webb told ABC News. “I’ve got a very strong position on domestic violence generally … [but] I can’t speak for [decisions made by] my predecessors.”

 The NSW Police Force responds to 140,000 calls for help with domestic violence each year.(AAP: Dean Lewins)

That’s not to say it hasn’t featured in matters before the Industrial Relations Commission. In one case heard in 2020, a former police officer appealed the Police Commissioner’s decision to sack him for 11 findings of misconduct — including that he threatened and assaulted his partner — claiming his removal would be harsh. The Commissioner (then Mick Fuller) disagreed, arguing the NSW Police Force “has no tolerance for domestic violence behaviour”, which he described as “criminal conduct and inimical to our sworn oath of office”.

When one of the “key missions” of the force is to “drive out the scourge of domestic violence”, the Police Commissioner said, “I can no longer have confidence in you to contribute toward the achievement of such a goal, in view of your misconduct”. The industrial relations commissioner John Murphy concluded the officer’s removal was neither harsh, unreasonable or unjust and dismissed his application for review.

Still, advocates and lawyers have pointed to inconsistencies between how senior police claim they respond to abusers in their ranks and the disturbing experiences many victims say they’ve had after seeking help from local officers. 

A ‘stark window’ into victims’ experiences

Lauren Caulfield, coordinator of the Policing Family Violence Project, said the new figures obtained by ABC News were “distressing, angering and chilling” and added to mounting evidence in Australia and internationally that police officers who perpetrate domestic violence are significantly less likely to be charged and convicted than abusers in the general community. 

“The types of charges reflected in the data represent serious, high-risk and sometimes life-threatening violence … it’s a stark window into the experiences of victim-survivors who have reported this to police,” Ms Caulfield said — and many don’t. “Victim-survivors often speak of the way that police abusers weaponise their authority and knowledge of the family violence and legal systems — the ways their police badge shields them from accountability.” 

 Lauren Caulfield says the new figures obtained by ABC News are “distressing, angering and chilling”.(Supplied: Charandev Singh)

That at least six officers recently found guilty and or convicted of their charges are still employed by the NSW Police Force should be of “serious concern” to the public, Ms Caulfield added. As a point of reference, she said, a domestic violence conviction often precludes members of the general community from volunteering at many organisations.

“It is beyond concerning that officers using domestic violence — and even those found guilty of this in court — are still serving,” Ms Caulfield said. “These figures contradict and undermine claims by senior police that officers who perpetrate domestic violence are held to the same standard as members of the wider community and instead reveal a pattern of impunity for officers who abuse.”

Experts say one of the most pressing problems is that the NSW Police Force doesn’t have a specific policy for dealing with employees who perpetrate domestic violence, and that investigations into serving officers are frequently managed by police from the same station or command, potentially creating conflicts of interest and implications for victims’ safety and privacy. 

The auditor-general’s performance audit released last week identified more or less the same issue. It found that while the force has basic procedures for responding to allegations against serving officers — such as securing the alleged perpetrator’s service weapons — there is no guidance for managing conflicts of interest and ensuring investigations are independent. It recommended the force review its process for investigating domestic violence matters involving employees and implement procedures to safeguard their independence and mitigate conflicts of interest.

Yet police accountability lawyers have argued police shouldn’t be investigating themselves, and that the police complaints and oversight system is not sufficiently independent. For instance, complaints about police conduct in NSW can be made to the Law Enforcement Conduct Commission. But the LECC is notoriously under-resourced and refers some 98 per cent of what it has called a “firehose” of complaints back to police for investigation.

‘I’ll be looking to improve where I can’

Commissioner Webb said she “welcomed” the auditor-general’s findings and would work with the Audit Office and stakeholders to address its eight recommendations, but insisted NSW police managed conflicts of interest well and “put victims’ needs first”.

“An investigator that’s allocated to a matter like this would have significant experience and have to declare up front … that there is no conflict that can’t be managed,” Commissioner Webb said. “And if there is one, then it’s given to another neighbouring command or our Professional Standards Command, which is made up of teams of detectives.”

Other police forces have attempted to address glaring problems with how they respond to employees who perpetrate domestic violence and stop abusive police being given “special treatment”. Victoria Police, for instance, recently launched a standalone policy for dealing with such matters and stood up a unit in its Professional Standards Command to investigate high-risk cases.

But Commissioner Webb, whose force responds to 140,000 calls for help with domestic violence per year, said she would prioritise servicing the broader community before considering whether she needs a specialist unit for dealing with perpetrators in police. 

“Having said that, my internal affairs unit is made up of detectives, designated criminal investigators that specialise and have all the skills to investigate any type of criminal offence, not just DV,” she said. “And certainly while I’m in the role here, I’ll be looking to improve where I can, and if that means I’ve got to change some things around delegations and authorities, then I will.”


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