Racism, rapes and the increasing pressure on Queensland’s police commissioner

Police accountability is now a front-page issue due to an inquiry in which dozens of cases have been raised with Katarina Carroll

For most of the past few days, the Queensland police commissioner, Katarina Carroll, sat listening inside Brisbane’s courtroom 34.

Carroll had been called to give evidence at the state inquiry into police responses to domestic violence. As she swivelled on her chair in the witness box, the evidence was mostly given to her.

The commissioner was confronted about officers who routinely harassed their female colleagues. Police who were openly racist. Some were later promoted, and still serve in uniform.

The same three words, played on repeat, provided a sucker-punch to most of these cases: “local management resolution”.

When an officer is the subject of a complaint, the most common punishment is a remedial conversation with a supervisor, known as a local management resolution, or LMR.

An officer teaching at the police academy, recorded telling recruits “you can smell them before you see them” in reference to Indigenous people, was managed with an LMR.

A senior officer found to have engaged in bullying conduct over 13 years, using racist language such as “towelhead” and sending pornographic material to colleagues faced only an LMR. He was then promoted.

An officer who threatened to punch his female superior “in the cunt” for blocking his career advancement was managed with an LMR.

Female officers who were subject to assaults and abuse did not report them, believing there was little point, the inquiry heard. A man ultimately found to have committed nine sexual assaults engaged in problematic behaviour for 16 years without a single complaint.

Officers who speak up are labelled “dogs”, they warned repeatedly in submissions. In many cases the consequences for women who made complaints were far worse than the punishment for their abusers.

One officer repeatedly harassed and made sexual advances towards a junior female colleague, who later left the Queensland police service. The counsel assisting the inquiry, Ruth O’Gorman KC, said she had “paid the price for having been the victim”.

“The system is stacked against female victims in the QPS. It’s failing to send the appropriate message to members that this behaviour will not be tolerated,” O’Gorman said.

Carroll said the use of LMRs was, in many cases, “completely inappropriate”. By the end of her evidence, she conceded that the system was “broken”.

Racism in the ranks

The inquiry heard that officers had called Indigenous colleagues “dumb cunts”, “smelly cunts” and “lazy cunts”.

Carroll seemed visibly uncomfortable hearing this sort of language. But she had been told before that these sorts of problems exist.

Last year, a group of officers met with Carroll and her leadership team to speak about their experiences of racism within the service.

Carroll told the inquiry on Thursday that the stories relayed by the Indigenous and multicultural officers had caused her “grave concern”.

A few weeks later, Carroll fronted a media conference to address heated Black Lives Matter protests in Brisbane, which had been prompted by the death of an Indigenous woman who had been left for hours unattended in a police cell.

Police, she said, were “in no way racist”.

That would have been “an absolute slap in the face” to those officers who had recently shared their experiences, O’Gorman said.

The inquiry commissioner, judge Deborah Richards, said: “You had been told that a month before, and you stand up and say, ‘We are in no way racist.’ You knew that was not true, commissioner.”

Carroll responded that 17,500 officers were not racist, but “there’s definitely racism within the QPS.”

Chelsea Watego, a Mununjali and South Sea Islander woman and academic who recently took the QPS to a tribunal alleging racial discrimination, argues this illustrates how racism works.

“Black testimony is routinely dismissed,” Watego said. “But these reports are coming out now because there’s been a concession from a white witness.”

“It’s frustrating for people to suddenly discover racism, when the evidence has always been there.”

The inquiry was called in the process of Queensland criminalising coercive control as a form of domestic violence. Doing so was particularly controversial among Indigenous and multicultural communities. Data suggests police routinely misidentify domestic violence victims as offenders, and that those problems are more acute for people of colour.

Given the scale of evidence at the inquiry, concerns about unintended consequences from criminalisation are heightened.

This police organisation is not positioned to apply proposed coercive control laws which are guaranteed to be used for racist & misogynist purposes given organisational culture. QLD must act to meaningfully address these systemic problems and reconsider CC criminalisation

— Dr Molly Dragiewicz (@MollyDragiewicz) October 5, 2022

Watego says the Queensland government is attempting to reframe its relationship with Indigenous people via a treaty process and that the wash-up from the inquiry will be “a real test”.

“It’s not enough to be shocked by these accounts and allegations,” Watego says.

“What’s needed is a commitment to changing the nature of the relationship.”

A ‘toothless tiger’ disbanded

Some of the headlines on Thursday surrounded Carroll’s personal experience of sexual harassment and assault early in her career.

“I was pretty well attacked by what I’d say was a sexual predator,” she said. “He took me to a forest and started taking my seatbelt off and I started running back towards the station.”

One female officer who has made allegations of sexual harassment and bullying told Guardian Australia of Carroll’s leadership: “It’s possible to be a victim of the culture, and a product of it at the same time.”

“I didn’t know how to react because, on one hand, anyone who goes through that deserves our support. But even after two days of horrific evidence, we still don’t feel seen by the QPS.”

In 2018, a group calling themselves the “senior women’s collective” compiled a dossier of lived experiences of sexism and misogyny.

“There is a club of us, unspoken of, unnamed, who either survived or got out of the job,” one woman, whose account was read aloud at the inquiry, said.

“I know, off the top of my head, five women who have been raped in the job.

“I know of no policewoman who has not been offended against in the job in some way or another. We have minimised the behaviour in order to stay in the job that we love.”

The woman, a rape survivor, recounted a senior sergeant saying to her: “What, we have to be precious around you because you reckon you’ve been raped? Fuck. Must have been a dumb, ugly cunt to rape you.”

Another officer chimed in: “They’re all fucked in the head, these bitches.”

After those women’s concerns were raised, the QPS established Juniper – a special unit tasked with investigating harassment and bullying. It was disbanded two years later, after a report found it had come to be viewed as a “toothless tiger”, because it failed to hold abusive male officers to account.

Pressure on the commissioner

O’Gorman has purposefully recounted case after case of problematic behaviours and attitudes within the QPS.

The inquiry had built a case of a widespread cultural problem. O’Gorman asked Carroll and the police union president, Ian Leavers – who had both previously rejected the notion these issues were widespread – if they now accepted the extent.

Leavers said 98% of officers did the right thing. He said those officers felt “tarnished as misogynists” and “under siege” by the inquiry and negative media coverage.

Carroll also equivocated.

“I accept that there are areas of concern, there are individuals of concern, I’ve always accepted that,” Carroll said.

“I know I have significant problems in some of those areas and I know that I have terrible individuals doing the wrong thing.

“But I can’t tar all those people with the same brush.”

The Queensland premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, said on Friday she believed the majority of police were doing the right thing, but acknowledged “deep-seeded cultural issues” in the QPS.

“I [was] quite distressed hearing those … racist comments and they have no place in a modern Queensland.”

Palaszczuk has consistently backed Carroll to lead the QPS through inevitable reforms. But this week’s hearings have unquestionably left the commissioner in a more perilous position.

It is understood some senior officers were angered by elements of Carroll’s evidence, in particular comments that shifted blame for decisions – such as the promotion of an officer who had previously made sexist comments, or the resourcing of the state’s specialist domestic and family violence command.

Carroll first opposed the need for the inquiry, then declined to attend. Multiple police who spoke to the Guardian said the commissioner’s job would be “impossible” if she lost the support of rank-and-file officers.

But the pressure for real cultural reform is growing. Police accountability is now a mainstream issue, making front-page headlines.

Having spent more than a day grilling Carroll about dozens of individual cases, O’Gorman reached a critical point.

“The problem can only be tackled, I would suggest, if it can be frankly acknowledged and stared in the face,” she said to the commissioner.


Ben Smee and Eden Gillespie

The GuardianTramp

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