After another busy Christmas period, the commander of Lake Macquarie Police District Daniel Sullivan says the time for raising awareness about domestic violence is over. People’s actions now need to change.
Rates of domestic assault in Newcastle and Lake Macquarie have remained stable for the past five years.
For police that means attending at least one, but more likely two, domestic violence incidents in each of the local government areas every day.
Officers working under Mr Sullivan responded to 727 assaults on partners and family members in Lake Macquarie between October 2017 and September 2018, an increase of 117 offences compared to the same period the year before.
Mr Sullivan says rates of domestic violence in his community concern him as a police officer, and as a father.
“I have the rare privilege of working in the command where I live. And I’m the father of two daughters,” Mr Sullivan said.
“And when you reflect on the national statistics: one woman murdered every week by their partner, one in three women above the age of 16 are the victims of sexual or physical violence, it’s my job as a cop, a father and a man to stamp that out.
“And to make a difference in my community for my family.”
Mr Sullivan said responding to incidents of domestic violence formed a large part of his officers’ workloads.
“It’s such a major issue for Australia,” he said.
“It forms a large bulk of what police do on a day-to-day basis, particularly here in the Hunter.”
According to analysis by the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, using data from 2017, the rate of “domestic-related” assault is actually higher in Newcastle than Lake Macquarie.
Newcastle has seen similar numbers of offences over the past five years as its neighbour, spread among a smaller population.
Both local government areas have rates of domestic assault above the state average.
Mr Sullivan said the majority of incidents in Lake Macquarie are perpetrated by males and for that reason he believed men have the greatest ability to turn the statistics around.
“Just because we are saying men’s violence against women is wrong, doesn’t mean we’re discounting violence perpetrated by anyone,” he said
“We’re just putting the effort into where the most harm has been done.
“You can feel powerless in the face of statistics but you can start by reflecting on your own attitudes.
“Real behavioural change starts with you.
“And that’s the challenge facing all men.”
He encouraged men to reflect on their beliefs about what behaviour is and is not appropriate.
“If someone’s gender can become the matter of a joke, that someone can put someone down because they are a girl, then that’s a slippery slope,” he said.
“That you can control or demean someone purely because of their gender, that is what becomes acceptable.
“Whereas, if we say we’re equal then let’s be equal.
“You don’t have to get on your high horse to have that conversation and call out that behaviour.”
He said attitudes around domestic violence needed to change in the wider community.
“All too often we fall into a victim blaming mentality and the question is asked: if it is that bad then why doesn't she leave?
“Let's turn that around and instead of asking why doesn't she leave, let’s ask why does he hit?
“Our clear message is that DV is not a mistake or an accident, it's a crime.
“It's okay if you're a neighbour, a relative and of course a victim to call police for help.”
This is the time of year when such crimes are most likely to occur.
While figures from the past month have not yet been released, analysis of domestic assaults perpetrated in Lake Macquarie in the months between 2014 and 2017 shows a consistent rise in crime in December and January.
This trend is less pronounced in Newcastle. However, in the summer of 2016 the number of domestic assaults jumped by a third of the monthly average of the rest of the year.
The manager of the NSW domestic and family violence team, chief inspector Sean McDermott, said the most common domestic violence offences, including assault, breach of an Apprehended Violence Order, intimidation and damage to property, are “quite seasonal”.
He said the summer surge continues into February.
“An increase in December, January and February, specifically, is reflected in charge rates, and reflected in call rates,” he said.
It was “almost guaranteed” the state would record an increase in domestic violence offences in the current holiday period, he said.
Mr McDermott said there are many stressors that can provide catalysts for family violence during the holidays. However, these are not the “cause” of criminal behaviour.
“People are in closer proximity to each other than they otherwise would be. Heat brings out a correlation with high consumption of alcohol,” he said.
“It’s a time when financial stress comes to the fore. Expectations versus reality can be an immediate catalyst for problems in the household.
“Estranged parents and partners have more access to children around this time of year and they are likely to feel more slighted if they’re not getting access.”
The chief inspector said police were changing the way they responded to domestic violence to try to curb crime rates.
He believed officers’ efforts to proactively check on perpetrators bound by Apprehended Violence Orders, and their victims, had increased the community’s confidence in policing.
“There are move AVOs in existence and we’re detecting more breaches because we are not waiting for the call,” he said.
Acting commander of Newcastle City Police District Steve Laksa said officers now assessed the risk of victims being re-abused every time they responded to family violence.
“We assess and identify victims at serious risk of harm and offer support to those victims,” he said.
“At times that could mean removing them from their house, offering them finances and alternative housing, just to remove them out of risk.”
Mr Laksa said for the past two years officers have been taking live recordings of victims’ statements at the scene of domestic violence. The practice has meant victims do not have to retell their experiences in the witness box.
“It increases convictions at court because we have that recording at the scene,” he said.
According to the latest BOCSAR data, Newcastle has seen a “slight decrease” in domestic assaults over the past year.
Mr Laksa said there would not be a continuous decline in crime levels until there was a shift in culture.
“It’s pretty much like drink driving,” he said. “As soon as it’s not acceptable to yell and abuse your partner, the rate of domestic violence will drop.”
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