Queensland police detective stood aside over comments about murder of Hannah Clarke and children

Commissioner says Det Insp Mark Thompson ‘gutted’ at phrasing he used about Camp Hill car fire deaths in Brisbane

A senior Queensland detective who said police were keeping an “open mind” as to whether the deaths of Hannah Clarke and her children were a case of a “husband being driven too far” has been stood aside from the investigation.

The Queensland police commissioner, Katarina Carroll, apologised on Friday for comments made by Det Insp Mark Thompson as he appealed for information into the deaths the previous day, saying the detective was “gutted” at his choice of words.

Thompson’s comments were condemned as victim-blaming by domestic violence campaigners including Betty Taylor from the Red Rose Foundation and Angela Lynch, the head of the Women’s Legal Service Queensland.

“The Queensland Police Service apologises for comments made during a media conference yesterday about the deaths of five people in Camp Hill,” Carroll said in a statement.

“I have spoken to Detective Inspector Mark Thompson who was very upset about the situation,” she said. “To ensure public confidence I have asked Detective Inspector Thompson to step aside from the investigation.”

At a later media conference, Carroll said Thompson had volunteered to step down “for the integrity and the confidence” not only of the current investigation, but Queensland policing more generally.

“And I totally agreed with that.”

She said Thompson was “an extraordinarily committed, experienced and brilliant investigator” and “an exceptionally good police officer” who was distressed and distraught by the consequences of what he had said.

She said she felt sorry for Thompson, but could also appreciate the impact of his remarks.

“If you see it in isolation of what was fully said, I definitely ... I listened to just that part and I thought to myself, ‘Wow’. You know, this is really hurtful to anyone that would be affected by this, by domestic and family violence – something that we are trying to get rid of in our society, and work so hard to support, particularly, victims.”

Thompson understood he needed to be stood down to avoid distracting from the investigation, Carroll said.

“We want to remove the noise and concentration on the issue,” she said. “So, the issue is there is a murder, there is a mother and three children who have been murdered. And I want to concentrate on that. So, if there’s anything … that’s interfering with this, I need to deal with it.”

Carroll also referred to the volume of family violence work the police were required to attend to.

“I was looking at statistics just yesterday – over 260 occurrences a day. And in some of my shifts, that’s all my officers do, is go from one occurrence to the other.”

She again offered “a sincere apology for any hurt we may have caused” and said she would personally apologise to Hannah Clarke’s family.

Det Insp Mark Thompson
Det Insp Mark Thompson talks to the media at the scene of the murder of Hannah Clarke and her three children. Photograph: Dan Peled/AAP

Carroll earlier told the ABC Thompson was “gutted about the way he said it and what was said. “He is a man who has protected the Queensland community all his life and has worked endless hours, and when he looks back he cannot believe the way he has phrased that.”

Meanwhile, hundreds of people rallied outside Parliament House in Brisbane on Friday in an emotional call for more action to curb domestic violence.

Advocates made emotional pleas for social and political change after Clarke became the eighth woman killed by domestic violence in Australia this year.

Clarke, 31, and her children, Laianah, 4, Aaliyah, 6, and Trey, 3, were killed when Baxter allegedly poured petrol on his family and set them alight at Camp Hill in Brisbane on Wednesday.

Baxter died on the footpath from self-inflicted wounds, police say.

The estranged couple had separated before Christmas last year, and members of both families have painted a picture of a violent and controlling relationship.

Clarke’s sister-in-law, Stacey Roberts, said her parents had “exhausted themselves” helping her “escape this monster”, and in messages obtained by the Courier-Mail, a family member of Rowan Baxter repeatedly reassured Clarke she’d done the right thing in leaving.

“I’m so glad I got out when I did,” Clarke wrote to the woman earlier this month. “I’m OK, struggling, but I know I’ve made the right decision.

“I’m safe, I’m with my parents who are very, very normal. I’m just so glad I got out when I did. And I’m so glad you reached out to me.”

On Thursday, Thompson confirmed domestic and family violence orders had been granted against Baxter, saying there had been “a number of engagements of police” between the couple.

“I can confirm Queensland police have engaged with both Hannah and her estranged husband in relation to domestic violence issues,” he said.

“We have also engaged with both of the parties in referring them to support services.

“When it comes to Hannah, we have dealt with her on a number of occasions and worked with the Brisbane Domestic Violence Centre in supporting Hannah throughout her family issues. And we’ve also referred Rowan Baxter to support services as well.”

But in comments that drew an immediate and angry response from domestic violence advocates, Thompson also said police would keep an “open mind” about Baxter’s motives and wanted to speak to people who knew both families.

“We need to look at every piece of information and to put it bluntly there are probably people out there in the community that are deciding which side, so to speak, to take in this investigation,” he said.

“Is this an issue of a woman suffering significant domestic violence and her and her children perishing at the hands of the husband, or is it an instance of a husband being driven too far by issues he’s suffered by certain circumstances into committing acts of this form?”

Renee Eaves, a victims’ advocate who has worked extensively with domestic abuse sufferers in their interactions with the Queensland police, said she could not believe the comments.

“This … is nothing short of a flashing billboard about the mindset by some police around domestic violence,” she said.

“This narrative is the most dangerous thing that exists for victims who doubt themselves after an attack that maybe they were partly responsible. Police seem to think women make up complaints or are complicit, and as a result they fail to protect them.

“If police are now implying that a murdered woman might be at fault, then that to me raises critical questions about whether they took the threat to her safety seriously enough.

“A calculated monster has killed a woman and her children in the most abhorrent way anyone could imagine. Even when the worst has occurred, they’re still questioning the woman, and still looking for reasons to justify this man’s behaviour.”

Angela Lynch, the chief executive of the Women’s Legal Service Queensland, said: “for police to be buying into that kind of rhetoric is very concerning.’’

“It’s giving legitimacy to what has occurred. It’s victim blaming. It’s saying that she might have caused this through her own actions. It plays into very dangerous ideas in the community around victim-blaming and a whole range of myths about the family law system.”

Lynch said police often say domestic violence cases as “tit for tat between two parties, rather than an abusive pattern of violence”.

Controversial media commentator and men’s rights campaigner Bettina Arndt on Friday congratulated Queensland police “for keeping an open mind and awaiting proper evidence, including the possibility that Rowan Baxter might have been ‘driven too far’.”

Congratulations to the Queensland police for keeping an open mind and awaiting proper evidence, including the possibility that Rowan Baxter might have been “driven too far.” But note the misplaced outrage. How dare police deviate from the feminist script of seeking excuses...

— Bettina Arndt (@thebettinaarndt) February 20, 2020

In January, Arndt was made a Member of the Order of Australia, the third-highest rank in Australia’s civic honours system, drawing furious criticism from women’s groups.

Much of the criticism around the decision to honour Arndt centred around an interview she conducted with the Tasmanian man Nicolaas Bester, a convicted paedophile jailed for grooming and repeatedly raping his 15-year-old student when he was a 58-year-old.

Family violence campaigner and 2015 Australian of the year in 2015 Rosie Batty told Guardian Australia she found the decision to honour Arndt “very unhelpful”, a view she believed most people working towards gender equality would share.


Michael McGowan and Ben Smee with agencies

The GuardianTramp

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