Queensland’s police commissioner has vowed to do more to protect whistleblowers, after an inquiry revealed that officers who expose sexual abuse, misogyny and racism in the service often face reprisals from their colleagues.
Police who made complaints against their colleagues have told Guardian Australia that the internal witness support unit – established to support whistleblowers who report breaches of discipline, misconduct or corrupt conduct – is understaffed and overwhelmed.
The unit has just two staff members, both senior sergeants, who act as case managers. In a two-year period, there have been 1,676 complaints made against 738 Queensland police service (QPS) employees.
The QPS commissioner, Katarina Carroll, said it was “incredibly important” that police whistleblowers were protected when raising concerns about cultural issues in their workplace.
“Whistleblowers will be protected,” Carroll said Wednesday. “If the systems need to change, they can change. I will give them confidence that they will be protected.”
Officers receive a pro-forma email from the internal witness support unit when a complaint is made and in many cases have no further contact.
“It’s obvious they’re overwhelmed, but the response from the unit puts the responsibility on you to seek help,” one former police officer said.
A QPS spokesperson said the internal witness support unit “ensures that witnesses are immediately provided with a key point of contact for support services” and that a risk-assessment matrix was applied to every case.
“Recent independent reviews … finalised last month, have made recommendations that will impact the capability and capacity of [the] internal witness support unit,” the spokesperson said.
“The QPS offers a range of internal and external options to support the mental health and wellbeing its members [including] a dedicated internal team of experienced psychologists and social workers located across the state, who provide services to support mental health and enhance both individual and organisational wellbeing.”
The commission of inquiry into police responses to domestic violence heard about a blue wall of silence during public hearings this month.
Officers who reported inappropriate behaviour from colleagues or supervisors were labelled “snitches” and “dogs”, and had dog bowls and dog food left on their desks, the inquiry heard.
Concerns were raised about the police disciplinary system after it was revealed that a number of officers who had sexually assaulted junior colleagues had not been dealt with appropriately and instead were subjected to “local managerial resolution” – a remedial conversation with a supervisor.
Carroll admitted that in many cases the application of LMRs was “completely inappropriate” and that the system was “broken”.
The inquiry also heard one junior female officer was disciplined for not reporting the sexual harassment she was subjected to by her supervisor when she first joined the service.
Carroll told the inquiry it was “wrong” for the woman to be reprimanded.
The inquiry will hand its final report to the state government on 14 November.
In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is on 13 11 14 and the national family violence counselling service is on 1800 737 732. In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on freephone 116 123 and the domestic abuse helpline is 0808 2000 247. In the US, the suicide prevention lifeline is 1-800-273-8255 and the domestic violence hotline is 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Other international helplines can be found via www.befrienders.org