New Report Reveals an Insidious Culture of Sexual Assault and Harassment in an Australian Police Force

Alongside abusing their own members, allegations include grooming, stalking, and sexually assaulting vulnerable members of the community.

by Wendy Syfret
Dec 9 2015, 5:00pm

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Police in Victoria, Australia have finally promised to crack down on predatory officers and address the culture of sexual misconduct within the force. Their promise is in response to the damning findings of the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission (VEOHRC) report into sexual harassment, discrimination, and inequality within the state police.

This year, the Victoria Police have faced a steady stream of criticism for the prevalence and tolerance of sexual harassment within the force—overwhelmingly to female employees—and in the community. Just last week an intelligence report from the state's anti-corruption commission revealed several Victoria Police officers were under investigation for displaying "predatory behavior" against victims of domestic and family violence. The commission examined 142 allegations of this behavior spanning the decade between 2004 and 2014 that included grooming, stalking, and sexually assaulting vulnerable members of the community. The report also stated that alongside victims of family violence and sexual assault, offices had targeted sex workers, people with mental illness, and individuals with alcohol or drug addictions.

The Victoria Police have faced a steady stream of criticism for the prevalence and tolerance of sexual harassment within the force.

Family violence has been a massive focus of public discussion over the past 12 months. But the commission's revelations—which came within a week of White Ribbon Day, an international day for the the elimination of violence against women—serve as a grim reminder of how far Australia has to go.

While the issue of abuse within the police was hardly a cloaked secret, the full extend of the problem had never been made this visible. Of the 5000 officers and staff interviewed by the the VEOHRC, 40 percent of women reported sexual harassment that caused significant harm to their mental or physical health. Over the past five years, gay men were found to be six times more likely than their male heterosexual coworkers to be harassed by a colleague. Sexual comments or jokes were the most reported form of harassment. The investigation was one of the largest workplace sexual harassment studies in the world.

For comparison, rates of sexual harassment in the Australian Defence Force are 25 percent, and 33 percent within the community. That means statistically, female police officers are more likely to be harassed at work than they are walking home. Additionally, while the 40 percent figure is staggering, the commission noted there was an issue of widespread underreporting of incidents due to fear of repercussions.

Reflecting on how a breakdown of trust within a community designed to protect could form, Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commissioner, Kate Jenkins commented: "they have a particular environment where people seem to be more at risk because of the insular nature of the workplace." She added that the culture formed barriers and a sense of segregation for women, "It has created a daily experience of isolation for some that caused harm."

The culture formed barriers and a sense of segregation for women.

Responding to the findings today, Victoria Police Chief Commissioner Graham Ashton identified the need for a broad cultural change within the force, saying, "The change starts today. Our response to this report will be all encompassing." He added that 20 recommendations would be implemented to address the issues. These recommendations include financial compensation for victims, a new complaints system, reforms to the disciplinary system, female focused recruitment, and fast-tracking female officers to supervisory roles.

It's now expected that the 943 employees who reported being the subject of predatory behavior, harassment, or discrimination by fellow officers will be eligible to apply for up to $50,000 [$35,000 USD] in compensation. To encourage more victims to come forward, Assistant Commissioner Luke Cornelius announced that employees will have access to 24-hour support without having to express their concerns in the workplace. Before these changes in reporting were made, staff had to file an official complaint to receive support. This confrontational process is thought to be an additional factor in the lower reporting rates.

The payouts are expected to cost tens of millions, leading the State Government to vow it will help compensate victims. Responding to the findings and planned changes to police operations, Police Minister Wade Noonan commented that the report will "change Victoria Police forever," concluding, "there'll certainly be no turning back from this point."

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