Police failed to adequately investigate deaths of four Indigenous women, former officer says

A Queensland police whistleblower has claimed she was directed to withhold evidence of police failures in domestic violence cases from the state coroner’s office, and that detectives did not properly investigate the deaths of at least four First Nations women who had previously been subject to repeated violence by their partners.

The former senior sergeant – a veteran of more than 20 years in the Queensland Police Service (QPS) – worked as a police liaison to the domestic and family violence death review unit, which is part of the state coroner’s office. Her role in 2020 included auditing death investigations for any link to domestic and family violence (DFV).

The officer, who has asked not to be named, recently made a submission to the commission of inquiry into police culture. The statement – not released to the public but seen by Guardian Australia – alleged it was “made explicitly clear” by her supervising officer that “I was to protect the QPS’s reputation at all costs”.

“Reports compiled regarding police involvement in DFV-related deaths were routinely requested to be redacted removing information highlighting inadequate police actions and/or inactions,” the former officer said.

“Noncompliance with these requests resulted in me being subjected to negative workplace behaviours.

“Processes I had put in place to ensure all available policing information was provided to other members of the [death review uni] regarding police involvement in domestic and family violence-related deaths as required were heavily criticised.”

The former senior sergeant said that during a six-month period she identified four deaths of Indigenous women “where investigation lacked adequate responses from senior officers”.

“All four women’s deaths were reported by [detectives] investigating the deaths as drug overdoses,” she said.

“This is despite the last known person to see the deceased or report the person as deceased was the respondent in current domestic violence matters with the deceased female.

“Each female had multiple recorded incidences of domestic violence with the respondent, and the respondents had extensive domestic violence and criminal histories including offences of violence against other women.”

The former senior sergeant said she was “criticised and complained about” by investigators for bringing the cases to the attention of the coroner, who went on to request more information.

The submission details how, in 2021, the former senior sergeant made a complaint to the crime and corruption commission about the requests to withhold information. The complaint named two senior officers who were alleged to be supportive of withholding information from the coroner.

Ultimately an investigation was undertaken internally by a police officer “whose direct supervisor” was one of the two senior officers named in the complaint. The practice of police investigating police is common and controversial in Queensland.

The former senior sergeant said she asked for the complaint investigation to be reallocated. When this request was refused, she said she did not provide any information to support the complaint, believing the investigation could not be impartial. The internal investigation ultimately found no evidence of wrongdoing.

The submission detailed longstanding concerns – echoed privately by members of the domestic and family violence death review board – that for long periods of up to a year, a police liaison position to the death review unit was left vacant.

In 2019 and 2020, audits of death cases for domestic violence links “were not completed due to a lack of capacity” in the police coronial support unit.

The submission said a request was made to the QPS hierarchy in November 2020 – eight months after the murder of Hannah Clarke – asking for a permanent liaison to the death review unit.

“Highlighted in the report were the significant organisational risks should the role not be secured permanently, not just to [the coronial support unit], but also to the QPS more broadly,” the submission said.

“A response was never received and after another period of the position remaining vacant, a part-time officer of lower rank with no DFV investigative experience has been placed in the role.”

A QPS spokesperson said the force is committed to supporting victims of domestic and family violence and holding perpetrators to account.

“While the service has already made significant changes to strategies, policies, processes, training and technology, the commission of inquiry [COI] is an opportunity for the organisation to improve and strengthen our DFV response across the organisation” the spokesperson said.

“Policing domestic and family violence is both challenging and complex, with officers responding to more than 340 DFV occurrences on average across the state every day, more than 120,000 occurrences each year.

“The QPS understands the COI will receive various submissions detailing experiences with officers and we welcome the opportunity to learn and improve from these contributions wherever we can.

“We are encouraging and supporting current and former QPS officers in contributing to the COI.

“As the submissions are being made directly to the COI, the QPS is not in a position to comment on specific matters raised at this time.”

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