Thursday 26 June 2008

Hansard of the Estimates Committee B (Cox) - Part 2


Mr DEAN - Minister, I am taking this from the statistical document we were provided with and it is a perennial question for me.  Family violence reports are currently on 4 821.  There seems to be a bit of a plateauing of it but if our Safe at Home strategies are working, why do we continually see this either increasing or just plateauing?  Should we not expect to see a drop-off in this sometime?  The previous commissioner used to tell me this was because of our new strategies and the great publicity that we were going the way we were, but that has to run out sometime.

Mr COX - Mr Dean, all I can do is share your concern and your wish.  I would love to see it plateau out or drop off.  I think it is an absolutely appalling figure.

Mr DEAN - Do we accept then that this is now not just through better and easier reporting and the changes in the law and that we have a serious problem out there that is continuing in this State?

Mr JOHNSTON - It is a serious problem because any instance of family violence, in my view, is a serious problem, irrespective of the number of instances of it.  It is too early to say yet but I would be hopeful that we have reached the pinnacle.  This first strategy, as the former commissioner said, was to give people who are the victims of family violence the confidence to report it and the confidence, when it is reported, that something would be done about it.  I would like to think that we have done that and reached that particular point where we now can identify the true extent of family violence in our community, and I think that is where we are at.  Then one would hope that all the programs that we have in place will now start to take effect to drive down the level of instances of it, not just the reporting of it.  I definitely do not want to reduce the amount of reporting of family violence but we do want to reduce the instance of it.  I have a sense - and again, it is very early to say and I could be sitting here next year saying how badly wrong I got it - and I would hope, from the bottom of my heart, that this has now turned the corner.

Mr DEAN - If I happen to be here next year, Commissioner, you can rest assured I will be asking some questions on it.

Mr JOHNSTON - I have no doubt about that.
Mr COX - I think we agree, Mr Dean, the positive aspect is that people now have the courage to report it, which they may not have done in the past.  I am sure the Commissioner is correct.

Mr DEAN - My next question is in relation to the time that a police officer is involved in a family violence reporting.  I recently spoke to some police who outlined a case to me, Minister, and to me it did not appear like an absolutely serious case, where they said it took them eight hours from the time they attended the scene until the time this person was remanded in custody.  For them to go right through the process it took them longer than eight hours.  Included in that was about six hours' overtime because it happened two hours before the end of their shift.  Minister, is there anything that can done?  That was just an example they gave me.  They said, 'This is an ongoing problem for us' - the time that they have to put into doing this.  I thought that we were bringing other people into this process where it could be handled by other people as well?  It must be a concern to the Commissioner that a lot of his police time is taken up in these areas.  Are they serious?  Of course they are, but to me it seems there has to be some other way.

Mr COX - Is the Commissioner concerned? 
[3.30 p.m.]
Mr JOHNSTON - The answer is of course I am.  There are two elements to the answer.  We are spending too much time doing some of these things simply because our processes are wrong.  Why are the processes wrong?  Maybe because the design of the system that we had in the first place was not right.  When I say 'system', I do not mean an IT system, I mean the approach that we brought to it.  For argument's sake, there was our original intention after the legislation came in that with the introduction of police family violence orders, the police would attend, for argument's sake, at the home where the incident happened, where both parties would be present and the police there and then would be able to write out a police family violence order to put conditions on the ongoing relationship in the short term and hand it over.  But unfortunately, because we built a computer system, our police officers starting take the people from the home back to the police station to fill in the same form and to have it validated and then took the person back home.  Of course that adds effectively an hour or more to that particular process.  There are others that are equally as dysfunctional that cause frustration to operational police.  We asked for a review to be done by one of our very competent very skilled sergeants in this area, one who has a lot of background in this area.  She has consulted widely with other police officers who are doing these tasks with a view to identifying all the bits of the system that can be addressed to reduce the amount of time without impacting on the efficacy of our approach to family violence.  Now that report should be somewhere near the deputy commissioner's desk, because I am pleased to say that it is his responsibility to manage the ongoing issue of that.  I would hope that will lead to some very positive changes before the end of this current calendar year.

Mr DEAN - Minister, it is pleasing to hear that because some of these investigates are taking longer to resolve than a murder case.

Mrs JAMIESON - I can vouch for the fact that I have had two or three cases brought to my attention in Devonport which have taken more 10 hours.  They have been repeats and very difficult, very complex cases that have involved kids as well.

Mr JOHNSTON - But let me emphasise the reason for this is that our police officers have been trying to do exactly the right thing and have it spot on in the interests of the victim.  That is what it is all about.

Mr DEAN - There is no suggestion that they are wasting their time or that they are putting in extra time that they should not do.

Mr JOHNSTON - One of the positive signs is that the overtime in relation to family violence incidents has reduced by about a third over the last couple of years.  That would suggest that there is a reduction in the amount of excessive time being spent.

Mr FINCH - In respect of special training that might have been afforded your police force now, they are dealing with this new initiative of the Safe at Home policy and enforcing that.  We knew that there were difficulties early in the piece in getting the changeover to the new operations and the new way of handling things.  Has there been extra training undertaken for police officers to deal with this specific way of handling these issues?  Is there any training in psychology in respect of this particular issue to increase the knowledge and empower police more in the issue they are dealing with?

Mr JOHNSTON - The answer to your first question is, yes, there is specific training.  There is a much higher level of training for those in the victims safety response teams, who are dealing with this all the time.  Operational police officers have all received additional training in relation to family violence legislation and how to handle incidents.  It was delivered by an outside provider and I can say it was of a very high quality.  That is ongoing.  All our recruit courses have the same training as they come into the system.  We spend around $115 000 to $120 000 a year on training and administration as part of our approach to family violence.  An element of that, of course, is the psychology of how to handle people and incidents as opposed to psychology per se.

Mr FINCH - And how to recognise that they are being mislead or if there is a false accusation -

Mr JOHNSTON - I would like to think that is part of their ordinary training, Mr Finch, but we don't always get that right, I might add.

Mr DEAN - I do not think the member for Launceston's question quite covered the number of alleged offenders who are taken into custody and then those cases are not proceeded with.

Mr WING - I did not ask that.  Mrs Jamieson did.

Mr DEAN - Thank you.

Mr FINCH - On this safe at home situation, I am wondering if there have been complaints to police in respect of implementation of the safe at home policies, the conduct of police and false accusations.  Have you received complaints from the community about the way things might have been misjudged or things that have gone wrong or not been handled correctly?

Mr JOHNSTON - We certainly have.  When I was the deputy commissioner I was dealing with some of them.  I cannot tell you the number because it is not something that I have in my head or here in front of me.  They are not very many in the total context of the gross number that we deal with in a year but, yes, of course there are.

Mr FINCH - Do you have a program in place for compensating people if the police get it wrong or do you have an apology mechanism?  Is there a way of dealing with these people who may not be dealt with correctly - according to them?

Mr JOHNSTON - There is no compensation mechanism available other than the general law available to anybody in this context.  We have an apology system, of course.  If we get it wrong we will apologise and we will -

Mrs JAMIESON - Sometimes.

Mr JOHNSTON - We have learnt some lessons over time.  The biggest difficulties are those cases where it is hard to actually make a definitive determination in relation to error or otherwise.  Unfortunately, these are usually very emotive issues and people's understanding of them is very difficult to deal with at times.  Quite simply you can rest assured that, while I am the commissioner, if we have got it wrong I am happy to apologise to people, as I did this morning when I quite happily pointed out to Mr Dean that we got it very badly wrong in relation to that matter at Bellerive.

Mr FINCH - Have any qualified practitioners - and I am probably thinking about people in justice, counselling or psychologists - voiced any concerns about the way that the Safe At Home law has been applied and is being applied?

Mr JOHNSTON - I am not aware of any but that is not to say that there have not been any.  Normally if there had been some I think I would be aware of it.  Of course they would not always complain to police; they would complain to people like the Department of Justice, who administer the legislation.  They would also make their views known to people who conduct the assessments and reviews, such as the company called Erebus.  They did one review recently and the Institute of Law Enforcement studies have done another review, so there are different entry points for people who have those concerns.  They would not all necessarily come to the police - or even any.

Mr FINCH - But you do not have an understanding that there are complaints coming through to your desk?

Mr JOHNSTON - Definitely not at all.

Mrs JAMIESON - My question is about the success or otherwise of interagency meetings and collaboratively working around some very complex issues, and also about family conferencing, individual youth conferencing.  Have you any comment to make? 

Mr JOHNSTON - Let me say two things.  The issue that should never be lost sight of is that Tasmania Police are totally committed to alternative resolutions to these things.  We are very strongly committed to restorative justice principles.  We actually look for every single way that we can to ensure that community expectations are met about properly dealing with people who offend against the laws of our society while at the same time keeping young people out of the criminal justice system for as long as possible.

I think we have a world-leading approach to this, to be honest with you.  The interagency support teams that exist in every municipality around this State, some of which are led by police and others where the police are active participants, bring together all of the players in that local community at the right level to deal with the people who are offending in their local community or who are at risk of offending.  We not only focus on those who break the law; we actually try to prevent people from becoming law breakers down the track.

We are really supportive of that.  We use exactly the same partnership and collaborative principles on family violence.  Once a week, there is a meeting of all the relevant stakeholders to discuss all the family violence incidents that have happened in their area over the last week.

Mrs JAMIESON - Do you have an opportunity if there is an absolute crisis to get together with two or three agencies?

Mr JOHNSTON - Rest assured that that is exactly the case.

Mr DEAN - I just want to talk a little bit about the service of summonses and warrants.  Certified mail is still there and warrants by police.  There was once quite a backlog in warrants in that area.  I take it we are on top of all that?

Mr JOHNSTON - The answer is, no we are not.  We receive more warrants per year than we can execute.  We are hopeful that those numbers will now start to decrease with the implementation of the fines enforcement system.  That will reduce the number of warrants quite dramatically and give us an opportunity to then blitz it, to try to get rid of the backlog in warrants that we have.

Mr DEAN - Minister, I take it this is an unusual situation and I wonder how often it applies.  I do not want to name the station in this instance, but police rang an offender, I suppose, and said to him recently that they had a summons for him and demanded that he come and pick the summons up.  He quite promptly told them that he was in no hurry to do that and that they would not see him.  He came straight in to see me, to see whether he had done the right thing. 

CHAIR - Did he bypass the station to see you?

Mr DEAN - I said, 'You have certainly done the right thing' particularly when he said that he did not commit the offence. That is an unusual situation and I take it that is not happening very often.

Mr COX - It is the first time I have ever hear of it and I can tell by the commissioner's reaction that he -

Mr JOHNSTON - If I were him I would go and get it because I would be forever looking over my shoulder waiting for the policeman to tap on my shoulder and say, 'Here is a summons'. 

Mr COX - The short answer is, no, I have never heard of that and I hope it is not a common practice.

Mr DEAN - At one stage, police were having lots of difficulties in the area of processing their summonses and getting them out and particularly from infringement notices that were being issued.  Obviously the new process is there and will help tremendously.  Are they on top of that; are there any comments in relation to that?

Mr JOHNSTON - You have answered the question, Mr Dean.  I would think that with the new system where we will not be issuing summonses unless people opt to go into the court system, it will have a huge impact - probably in excess of 40 000, in my view, will be reduced.

Mr DEAN - That is good.  It allows the police to do the work they should be doing.