Domestic violence is a men’s problem, and only when men wake up to that fact will we effect meaningful and sustainable change.
Assistant Commissioner Mark Murdoch is the Central Metropolitan Region Commander in the NSW Police Force and also the Corporate Spokesperson on Domestic and Family Violence, a challenging role with more than 300 incidents of domestic violence reported daily across NSW. It is significant that the Domestic Violence portfolio is assigned to one of the most senior officers in the Police Force. This reflects the magnitude of the problem that is estimated to cost the Australian economy more than $13 billion a year. The Federal Government believes that violence against women and their children poses one of the greatest challenges for Australia.
More than 120,000 instances of domestic violence are reported in NSW each year. For some of the State’s Local Area Commands, this means that between 30 and 40 per cent of the work undertaken by their uniformed police is devoted to investigating allegations of domestic violence. ‘I tell our people that we are engaged in a war,’ Mark says. But it is a war that police are starting to win on a number of fronts. ‘We take domestic violence very seriously and will investigate and prosecute offenders when there is sufficient evidence.’
Mark, who was awarded the Australian Police Medal for distinguished service in 2007, has been working in this field for a long time and is pleased to see a discernible improvement over the past 12 to 18 months. The latest crime statistics show that general crime is falling or stable, but that domestic violence is running counter to that trend. Paradoxically, this means that the Police Force is gaining some traction because women are becoming more confident about seeking help. ‘This is a good thing for us because it means that women are feeling increasingly confident that if they come forward and report what is happening to them and their children, they will be taken seriously, the police will investigate and perpetrators will be held to account. We encourage women to report violence so we can offer them and their children the care, protection and support they need to escape the cycle of violence in which they are living.’
In spite of the progress, the Assistant Commissioner is concerned about the alarming number of cases that still go unreported. Police believe only 40 – 50 per cent of cases are brought to their attention. By its very nature, domestic violence happens behind closed doors and many women are too afraid of the consequences to seek help.
Mark believes that many victims do not understand the escalating nature of domestic violence – that what starts out as an argument builds up over time and develops into displays of threatening behavior, intimidation and harassment, usually culminating in physical violence. In extreme cases, it can lead to death. According to statistics, one woman is killed every week in Australia by a former or current partner. Often victims become isolated, socially and financially, left feeling vulnerable and helpless. Sometimes they become homeless along with their children. He says it is a ‘momentous’ decision for women to actually call the police for help. He wants more victims to do the same. ‘You make the call and we will make it stop.’
Mark attributes domestic violence to a ‘culture’. ‘It is men who believe they have the God-given right to do as they want,’ he says. ‘It goes back to the cave men. Men need to wake up to the fact that domestic violence is a men’s problem. Only when they realise this fact will meaningful and sustainable change be effected. We know that young boys who witness domestic violence are more likely to become perpetrators when they are older. That is why it is important to shape their behaviour at an early age. A greater focus needs to placed; and not just by police, upon prevention and early intervention.’
There have been suggestions that pornography is a contributing factor, particularly as the greatest users of pornography are males between the ages of 14 and 25. ‘Pornography certainly has the propensity to blur young people’s thinking about behavioural norms, particularly in terms of respectful relationships and sexual expectations,’ he says.
The NSW Police Force is part of a national strategy involving government and non-government agencies. Mark says officers have been specially trained to deal with domestic violence because it happens so frequently. Yet his concern is not only for the safety of victims and their children, but also for the police who investigate instances of domestic violence and prosecute offenders. The physical and emotional toll on the officers themselves is relentless and not to be underestimated. ‘It can be overwhelming, especially when children are involved. We are careful to monitor the officers’ physical and mental wellbeing.’
Although police are making progress in reducing domestic violence, they know they cannot ‘arrest their way’ out of the problem. Mark says it will require more than resources and funds to change men’s attitudes to violence against women. ’There is only so much a government can do.’ He believes it is time men took responsibility for their own actions. ‘It will take a seismic shift in the way men think about women to stop domestic violence.’ The White Ribbon campaign, for which he is an Ambassador, has certainly helped raise awareness in the community.
Mark agrees that a domestic violence media campaign would help address some of the problems by putting it in the public arena, working in much the same way as the very successful Random Breath Testing (RBT) campaign. Domestic violence happens everywhere, although volumes are highest in the growth areas of south-western and north-western Sydney.
The Assistant Commissioner has a vision that all women should expect to have a life free of violence. ‘We are committed to making this a reality.’