Cracks emerge in ‘blue wall’ as Queensland’s first female police commissioner faces torrid test

Katarina Carroll’s testimony to domestic violence inquiry has provoked a visceral reaction within the force

Queensland’s first female police commissioner, Katarina Carroll, wanted the prevention of violence against women to be one of her “legacies”.

“I want to be known as a person who has actually opened the conversation up,” Carroll said in a 2020 interview.

A few days before fronting Queensland’s commission of inquiry into the widespread cultural issues affecting police responses to domestic and family violence, Carroll confidently told reporters that her evidence would outline “the incredible journey of reform” that had taken place during the few years since she was appointed.

It didn’t pan out that way. A month on, the fallout from the commissioner’s appearance has reverberated through the ranks of the Queensland police service, and sent the top brass into damage control.

One of the organisation’s deputy commissioners has fallen on his sword over “vagina whisperer” comments unearthed by the inquiry. Another senior cop has taken leave after being disciplined for public sexist remarks, and the inquiry is reportedly now digging up the disciplinary history of some officers.

Key backroom and executive staff have left for other jobs.

After more than 250 new submissions, many of them from furious officers, Carroll has now been recalled for a second grilling.

Amid the turmoil, the idea that the state’s first female commissioner might be forced to stand aside over police treatment of women is – despite reassurances from the state government – being openly discussed.

More than a dozen officers who spoke to the Guardian this week – including some who have now made submissions to the inquiry – said the month since Carroll’s appearance at the commission had created cracks in the notorious “blue wall of silence”.

Some said they would never have previously considered raising concerns about police culture or practices – even longstanding or serious ones.

“We’ve all been emboldened,” one said.

The tipping point for many was the way Carroll steadfastly denied cultural issues existed, and initially declined to appear at the inquiry.

“The notion that senior police have just now learned about culture issues is just a fantasy,” one senior sergeant said.

“They have the results from Work for Queensland surveys [which gauge public sector employee sentiment] for years that tell them the same thing. It’s the fact they are acting like all of this is new information that has so many people’s backs up. People finally see this is their chance to do something about it.”

Conflicting loyalties

A week before Carroll told the Courier-Mail that she wanted reform to protect domestic violence victims to be her legacy, a Queensland court overturned the recorded conviction of Neil Punchard, a senior sergeant who had hacked into a confidential database, accessed the address of a woman, and leaked it to her violent former husband (the conviction was later reinstated on appeal).

Punchard suggested in text messages that his childhood friend should “let loose” on the woman, known as Julie, and “fuck her over”.

At the time, the QPS declined repeated interview requests from Guardian Australia to discuss the detail behind Carroll’s mission statements – including how police culture, and problematic attitudes in the ranks, had contributed to repeated poor responses for female victims of violence.

The commissioner initially opposed the inquiry, claiming it was not warranted; she later said the QPS would support the process, but also argued that cultural issues were not widespread.

In her first appearance, Carroll conceded that cultural problems were “significant” but did not reflect a majority of Queensland police.

Many female officers feel conflicted about the way Carroll is now in the firing line. While the commissioner’s response to cultural issues has left most underwhelmed, at the same time there is an irony that the state’s first female commissioner has been forced to wear blame for the deeply embedded behaviour of men in uniform.

Carroll’s supporters say she has been dealt a rough hand and that, prior to the inquiry, such cultural reform was not realistic. As a new commissioner she did not have the capital to risk the ire of rank-and-file officers, or to take on the influential police union.

The union had said the recommendation to hold an inquiry was “woke” and “out of touch”. Its officials had railed against gender equality in police recruitment, called women’s groups the “DV industry” and made “factually incorrect” claims that domestic violence orders are used to gain advantage in family law disputes.

Union president Ian Leavers has now, at the urging of some police in new submissions, also been called before the inquiry.

Detractors say Carroll’s inexperience was evident during her appearance at the inquiry – in particular defensive responses to questions about a lack of personnel in the domestic violence command – and that few in her inner circle seek to challenge her.

A challenging reality

The resignation of deputy commissioner Paul Taylor, who made the “vagina whisperer” comment, presents Carroll with a challenge on separate fronts. Those seeking reform see an opportunity to press. And some from the older school, to whom Taylor was a storied figure, are increasingly unhappy.

On private police Facebook pages, Queensland police officers, former officers, and civilian staff have reacted angrily to Taylor’s resignation.

Posts liked by QPS staff include comments that “unsupportive police executives more concerned about diversity and woman’s [sic] issues rather than the core function of serve and protect”. Another said society needs to “lighten up”.

The situation sums up the reality faced by Carroll, as it was for her predecessor, Ian Stewart.

“We know genuine reform – and I’m not talking about another training module and pretending that that solves everything – if it ever comes, will be met with resistance,” one officer said.

The inquiry is scheduled to report back in November. In the meantime, the QPS is considering how it might need to pivot to properly acknowledge and address concerns that have been raised for years by women, women’s advocates, academics and other experts.

Last week the deputy commissioner, Steve Gollschewski, held a regular meeting with a small group of senior officers. According to people familiar with the conversation, he told them Carroll genuinely had not expected to be called to give evidence to the inquiry, and had not prepared in detail.

Gollschewski told the meeting the police executive leadership team now acknowledges there is an underlying cultural problem, and that the buck would ultimately stop with them.


Ben Smee and Eden Gillespie

The GuardianTramp

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