This weekend, the State Commissioner for Police in Victoria Australia, Ken Lay, resigned due to illness in his family. The work that Ken Lay and his predecessor, Christine Nixon, accomplished in changing police culture on violence against women should be honoured.
Intimate partner violence – assault and murder, mostly by men in relationships with women – is the single biggest risk to health for women aged 15 to 44 in Australia. Over the past 15 years, the state police force has not only vastly improved its response to intimate partner violence, but has also been seen as a model for other Australian states to follow.
Christine Nixon, the first Australian woman to lead a state police force, battled entrenched police culture from 2001 to 2009. She led innovation in terms of greatly improving police response to intimate partner violence, often against furious opposition from the association representing police officers. Ken Lay, who took over the top police job in 2011, strengthened and consolidated Nixon’s commitment to battling both sexist police culture and differential treatment of violent offences.
This change in culture was brought to the fore after the rape and murder of Jill Meagher in September 2012. Jill Meagher was a young woman who lived in central Melbourne and worked for the ABC (Australia’s national radio station). She was followed by a serial rapist while walking the few blocks from a local bar, where she had met up from friends, to an alley near her home.
Jill Meagher was one of three women murdered in Victoria the same week, and one of 91 women murdered in the state that year. It is easy to say that her case garnered huge public outcry (with 30,000 people marching on the street where the pub was located, Sydney Road,soon after) because she was young and attractive, middle-class, married, and of European origin. What is harder to recognize is that because she was attacked by a stranger, she fell into a trope: both attacked because of her choice in walking home alone (classic victim-blaming), and seen as an identifiable ‘everywoman’. She wasn’t made anonymous by being put in the basket of those ‘other’ woman who are killed by their male partners.
The conservative state government reacted to the outcry about Jill Meagher’s murder by offering local councils more closed circuit television cameras (CCTV) This response flew in the face of evidence that the presence of multiple CCTV cameras along Sydney Road played no role in either the prevention of her murder, or the apprehension of her killer.
And this was one of those times when the changed police culture mattered. I was at a public meeting in the local council where Jill Meagher was murdered a few months later, debating CCTV. A police officer showed a map of where violent assaults and murders took place in that jurisdiction. There was a slight cluster along Sydney Road, but the most apparent pattern was scattering in residential neighbourhoods. In other words, for the first time in my 25 years of working on violence prevention, I saw violence in the home being mapped alongside violence on streets and in pubs. The sheer absurdity of a localized CCTV response to a problem that is everywhere and affects everyone was brought home, not by a feminist activist, but by a police officer.
In one of its first public statements, the new Victorian state government has announced a commission into family violence. I am cautiously optimistic that the rest of government might catch up, in this instance, to the police.
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