Spotlight on Sexual Assault and Consent
Victims of Crime Commissioner Fiona McCormack presented at the Australian New Zealand Policing Advisory Agency Forum that brought together decision-makers and leaders in law enforcement from across the world.
Victims of Crime Commissioner Fiona McCormack said:
“I’d like to acknowledge we stand on what has always been, and always will be, Aboriginal land. I pay my respects to Elders past, present and emerging, and acknowledge that in Australia sovereignty was never ceded.
“I acknowledge victims, and in particular victims of sexual assault, for their ongoing strength, resilience and resistance and the advocacy they provide in driving cultural and systems change.
“In working with victim/survivors over many years, I’ve had the privilege of meeting and working with some police members of various ranks where their passion and commitment to improve and innovate responses has been evident.
“However, despite these efforts and extensive reforms over a number of years, we know the overwhelming majority of sexual assault victims do not report to police. For many who do, there are still significant barriers to justice.
“Today I will speak about what victims needs from police, including consistent, professional and accountable responses; safe spaces; reporting and interviewing modes that reduce the likelihood of re-traumatisation; and being informed and consulted.
“I’ve heard from victims who have retold woeful experiences with police, which shocks me in this day and age. I’ve also heard from victims who wouldn’t report because of their previous experience with police. This is particularly true for those who face additional barriers to justice - Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, People of Colour, LGBTIQI+ communities, people with disability, and women who experience family violence.
“On the other hand, I’ve heard from victims who have praised the professional response they received from their police informant and the support provided not just when reporting, but throughout the experience of traversing the criminal justice process.
“The variations in responses is not surprising given we know that the police force is reflective of our broader community. Therefore, some attitudes towards victims of sexual assault are informed by the long and deeply held myths that exist in the broader community. Other members have a comprehensive understanding of the dynamics and the evidence base around sexual assault or can apply a professional attitude to their work.
“It’s also important to remember that some across the ranks will hold a conflict of interest if their own behaviour around consent in the past has been questionable or if their focus is on an empathising with the offender, and the consequences of being charged. Many victims are aware of this conflict when weighing up whether or not to report.
“So given these challenges, how might consistency of police responses be supported?
“I know that there are significant budgetary and logistical challenges in providing training across policing organisations. Nevertheless, specialist training must be mandatory for all police members.
“However, training on its own is not enough. Given the prevalence of sexual assault, the extent of under-reporting and how poor justice outcomes are for sexual assault victims, there is an imperative for police organisations to set targets and build in organisational accountabilities to track and meet those targets.
“But to shift attitudes and practice in any industry, training and targets must be accompanied by organisational cultural change. Messages that employees receive in training are rendered useless if they are contrary to messages and behaviour within their organisation, particularly by leadership.
“I recommend an ongoing focus on embedding cultural change within the police force. This is particularly important with respect to addressing gender equality and sexual harassment in the workplace. This approach also supports the establishment of victim focussed frameworks to respond to employee-related family violence.
“Evidence shows that the likelihood of perpetration of violence against women is increased among people who hold stereotypical attitudes about masculinity, male privilege and gender norms, and violence supportive attitudes. How are these attitudes currently vetted in recruitment processes? I recommend testing the effectiveness of a gender specialist on recruitment panels. Probation is also an opportunity to identify and veto possible offenders in the ranks.
“There is a need to be able to better identify why reports of sexual assaults are not progressed and points at which they are withdrawn. This includes understanding whether withdrawn cases occur because of active decisions victims make, or as a result of decisions by authorities.
“To that end, there is a need for separate data collection that separates ‘Complaint Withdrawn’, ‘Left Pending Further Enquiries’, ‘No Offence Detected’ and ‘False Report’. Each of these should have standard and easily understood definitions as a means of facilitating enhanced accountability. It would also allow police to know the status of a case at a glance and whether prosecution could progress in circumstances where new evidence came to light or if a victim was in a stronger emotional position to proceed.
“These data categories, along with a statement and forensic medical examination and other evidence can be held if the case can progress at a later stage.
“In relation to reports withdrawn, police talking to victims about their options can be useful to support informed decision-making. It’s extremely problematic when victims are actively discouraged from progressing, and concerted efforts to address this kind of response should be made.
“Given so many sexual assault victims know their offender, how many are unduly pressured to withdraw the report by the offender or their associates? Are police providing support to protect victims and charging co-conspirators who try to undermine the justice process?
“In order to encourage and facilitate reporting, victims need supportive spaces. Walking into a police station to report something as personal and traumatic as a sexual assault is an insurmountable barrier for many victims.
“We know that multidisciplinary centres work. In Victoria specialised services are brought together including police, sexual assault services, child protection, forensic medical services to support victims.
“All victims should have the same level of access to specialised responses and safe ways to report sexual harm regardless of where they live, including options around forensic medical examinations. Forensic medical examination shouldn’t remain dependent on the victim pursuing a criminal prosecution.
“I think all victims of recent sexual assault should be offered a forensic medical examination as a matter of course. Victims then retain the right to choose whether to proceed with a police report and investigation. This support should be available in both metropolitan and regional areas.
“Confidential and anonymous reporting options are an emerging area practice. Initial findings suggest that safe, anonymous online reporting may encourage victims to report an incident formally to police in the future.
“Given the barriers faced by many victims of sexual assault, anonymous and confidential reporting options should be available as part of a suite of options.
“I believe there needs to be a model of online reporting that allows victims to elect how much information they provide and indicate whether they consent to a follow-up conversation undertaken by an appropriately trained and skilled support worker.
“Emerging research suggests written reporting mechanisms, as opposed to face-to-face police-led verbal interviews, may provide some victim-survivors with a way to provide an initial account of the crime in a less confronting environment. Some research refers to this as a ‘self-administered interview’ or a ‘written-response interview protocol’.
“These options allow victims the opportunity to write their story in their own time. They can preserve the details of a victim’s narrative where a victim makes an initial report to police but is reluctant to proceed with a formal report at that time.
“I’ve also heard there might be benefits for people from non-English speaking backgrounds, as the form can be translated into community languages. This enables victims to document their account in their own words.
“Specialist child interviewers is another practical reform I’m very passionate about.
“The Gatehouse Centre at Melbourne’s Royal Children’s Hospital provides counselling and 24-hour Crisis Care to children and young people who have experienced sexual abuse. This service recommends the introduction of independent, expert child interviewers.
“These professionals would be highly trained, licenced and regulated by the state. They would be independent of police and recognised by courts as expert witnesses in all aspects of a child’s testimony.
“Gatehouse believes specialist child interviewers could improve the interview experience for children, decrease the need for multiple interviews and the associated harm, and potentially increase the probative value of children’s testimony.
“Many jurisdictions uphold victims’ rights under a Victims’ Charter that promotes victims’ decision-making and right to be kept informed.
“In an effort to strengthen the Victorian Victims’ Charter, my role as the Victims of Crime Commissioner has been given powers to investigate complaints by victims where they believe their interactions with prescribed agencies, including police, have not met obligations under the Charter and they have exhausted complaint options with the agency involved. I also monitor and report on the compliance of these agencies in a report tabled annually in the Victorian Parliament.
“However, whether or not a jurisdiction has these types of accountabilities, providing victims with information and updates and seeking their views at key points of decision making should be paramount.