Indigenous Law Bulletin
by Loretta Kelly
This article examines the policing of Apprehended Violence Orders (‘AVOs’) from the perspective of Indigenous women victims of family violence. Using research undertaken in my capacity as Indigenous researcher on the BRAVO project (Breach Responses to Apprehended Violence Orders), this article discusses policing practices and the issues arising from them in the context of family violence in Indigenous communities. The stories of Indigenous women victims of family violence illustrate the problems facing Indigenous women in the context of the policing of AVOs. Finally, I offer suggestions for improving the situation facing Indigenous women in our communities.
In undertaking the BRAVO research, initial consultations held with Indigenous women and information contained in the Mabourah Dubay Access Report indicated that the use of the criminal justice system as a means for dealing with breaches of AVOs is far more complex for Indigenous women than for non-Indigenous women. It was therefore important to ensure that Indigenous women were involved in the research, including the writing of the report, to ensure its cultural relevance.
Five Aboriginal service providers were involved in identifying the Aboriginal women interviewed. They identified 14 Aboriginal women from the Northern Rivers region of NSW who were: clients of their service during 1998; had experienced breaches of AVOs and had some contact with police as a result of the breaches. The Indigenous researcher met with all 14 Aboriginal women but only 10 were subsequently interviewed. The women’s stories were then compared with the official police record of the relevant incidents.
Some of the findings of the BRAVO research were applicable to both Indigenous and non-Indigenous women. In particular, it identified that police would not charge a perpetrator unless there had been physical violence causing damage to property or person.
Informal action, as opposed to formal action, appeared to be taken because of the wishes of the protected person. Thelma recalled several times when she and the defendant would get into an argument and she ‘just wanted him out of the house’. The police records specify two incidents when ‘no police action taken due to the wishes of the victim’. One record states ‘Both persons spoken to. Victim wanted POI [person of interest] removed and wished no police action. No offences detected. Both persons stated it was a verbal argument.’ Such a verbal argument could be regarded as harassment or intimidation by the defendant and therefore a breach of the AVO, however the police did not interpret the situation in that way.
It is important that victims’ wishes are taken into account in order to prevent their further disempowerment. However, the police must ensure that the victim’s wishes are obtained without duress: for instance, the duress imposed by the very presence of the defendant. Her wishes should be determined at a time and a place where the offender is not present. Although this may be inconvenient for the police officers, it is essential to ensure the ongoing protection of victims.
The BRAVO research indicates that in certain circumstances, police will not take any action. It appears that official police records are not kept in relation to these circumstances.
Many Indigenous women interviewed felt that police refused to take action because the defendant had absconded by the time the police arrived. They believed that it was because the police took so long to get there that the defendant had absconded. They felt that he failed to be apprehended because the police ‘don’t go looking for him’.
In relation to police assisting Aboriginal victims of domestic violence, Kim stated that:
They don’t do their job when it comes to black fellas because they [the police] will never go and look for them. By the time the police get there the black fellas have taken off. They seem to be okay with the white fellas, but I know with the black fellas they take too long to get there.
Kim had been:
talking to this white woman, we were having a yarn about AVOs and I asked her if she’d ever rang the police. And she said ‘yeah and they’d just come around straight away’. And I have to wait hours. When I tell my white friends how long it takes they say ‘what! You could get killed by then!’
Jill had a condition on her AVO that stated that the defendant could not approach the house within 12 hours of consuming alcohol:
But he still came there and I’d ring the police and by the time they’d get there he’d taken off over the fence. So I got sick of it. I’d call the police and he’d just take off.
In the official police record of Jill’s case there were several reports of breaches that involved physical violence and only one report of a breach where the defendant had absconded, ie ‘AVO enforced and POI evaded police’. There was no record of police attempts to pursue the suspect. Similarly, there were no records of the many times that Jill had called the police but by the time the police arrived, the defendant had left. Jill recalls the accusations of complicity implicit in police questioning: ‘One of them was talking to me smart like ‘where is he now?’ Like I knew!’
Several of the Indigenous women interviewed commented that they felt like the police were biased against them if they had been known to reconcile with their partners after a report of domestic violence. For instance, Mandy recalled an occasion when she had a valid AVO which, in her opinion, her partner had clearly breached. Yet he was not arrested. The police record of the incident states:
[Mandy] has made numerous other contacts with police previously and ADVOs have been taken out by police, each time later being revoked by [Mandy] and returning to her relationship with the defendant.
It is implicit in the police record that a factor affecting the police officer’s response was that the victim was known to reconcile with the defendant.
May identifies police attitudes towards women who reconcile with violent partners as a real problem in Aboriginal communities and believes that police are less willing to protect women who keep ‘going back’.Kim also identified this as a problem and commented on the inappropriate response of police to the situation:
he breached the AVO about seven times. But we’d get back together. Then the copper just stuck one [an AVO] out on the both of us and told us to stay away from each other.
Other Indigenous women interviewed also commented that they felt like the police were biased against them because they would defend and /or go back to the defendant. Bonnie recalls being at court on behalf of her partner one day:
the police would look at me funny and say ‘what are you helping him for?’ They used to get sick of me doing it all the time. But then when he wouldn’t help himself I got sick of him and charged him and he went to gaol for about three or four months. Then I kind of gave up on him.
It is pertinent to note that Bonnie did finally separate from the defendant. Police need to recognise that domestic violence is a cyclic phenomenon and they must be supportive at all stages of the cycle of violence. The assumption that ‘its no use helping her because she’ll just go back to him’ can lead to value judgments by police and further victimisation of women suffering domestic violence. For instance, Thelma was charged with aiding and abetting the defendant’s breach of the AVO against him. When she asked why she was being charged, the police responded: ‘we’re sick of this ... you’re calling the police but you’re having him back.’ Thelma corrected the police: ‘he doesn’t live with me, he just comes back here thinking he owns the place – arguing.’ In spite of her response, the police charged her with aiding and abetting.
The BRAVO research also examined whether the women interviewed were satisfied with their dealings with police. That is, is the service provision role of police satisfactory from the perspective of women victims? The answer to this question lies in the procedures police adopt and their attitudes to Indigenous women. The Indigenous women interviewed expressed a number of concerns about police procedures, including:
The police exhibited many negative and unhelpful attitudes to Indigenous women which effectively undermined the interviewees’ sense of protection. Christina explained that police do not understand her perspective or state of mind as a victim of domestic violence:
I’m swearing, I’m letting it all hang out. I’ve just been assaulted by my man. At the time its so hard for me... coming from these heart-wrenching, gut-wrenching emotional lives. These situations are confrontational to them.
Cynthia says ‘I’ve had a lot to do with the police over the last 18 years.’ She commented that when police arrive at her house, they make her feel inferior:
I can’t be bothered ringing them no more. You get stressed out and angry and you’re yelling because of what’s happened, so they [the police] tell you to hold your language and all that shit. You know they are real sarcastic, real snotty and look down at you.
The racist attitudes of police officers were a common experience of the Indigenous women interviewed. Mandy has come into contact with police many times in her life as a victim of domestic violence and has experienced racism directly and indirectly. She recalled the racist names she and her partner have been called by police:
They’ve called me a black queer bitch. The black coppa, (the Aboriginal liaison officer) told me that he heard one of the coppas say about [the defendant] ‘the black dog should just be shot’.
Christina has also come into contact with police many times as a victim and as the accused. She says that she’ll never forget the racist attitude of one particular police officer:
He came over and it was a severe verbal dressing down – I mean severe.... The way he spoke to me was emotionally cruel. He spoke to me like he hated my guts. And the only reason I know someone hates my guts without knowing me is about racism. Because racism is an opportunity for a human being to hate another human being without knowing them – just based on physical appearance – and that’s all its based on.
All of the Indigenous women interviewed had experienced condescending attitudes from police. Some women labelled this attitude as racism, others called it a ‘lack of respect.’ Sue described her experience of policing in relation to her AVO:
The police come and they talk real smart. They make you feel like you’re real stupid. They make you feel like you’re lying. They have no respect for you. They don’t help you. I reckon they treat the white women different to the Goori Dubay [Aboriginal woman].
Christina explained that racism is not always obvious: ‘You see the racism in the subtle things they do – when they speak to me with no respect, when there’s no effort to help.’ Christina says that there is a complete lack of understanding about the unique experiences and needs of Aboriginal women:
They don’t realise that you’ve struggled against hardships all your life and its so hard. They don’t realise that just for us to get the same level of education, get through so many issues, it’s harder. They don’t stop and think about how hard it is for us – the hurdles we have to climb. Our problems are so much deeper, we’re so much more scared. They don’t think about our needs. They don’t know how to be sensitive to us. They come to my home, they see me and think she’s emotional, she’s a woman. She’s a black woman – and they can’t handle it.
Some of the Indigenous women interviewed expressed that imprisonment is an appropriate penalty for perpetrators of family violence: ‘they should’ve took him and locked him up’ (Jill) and ‘I wanted him to go back to gaol’ (May).
Others, like Mandy, commented that prison is useless because it fails to rehabilitate the offender: ‘It’s best to get counselling. If they go in gaol it doesn’t make them any better. They come out twice as bad when they get out.’ Mandy explained that she ‘wouldn’t want to put anyone in gaol.’ Mandy was also concerned for the defendant’s safety if he were to be imprisoned:
I’d be terrified of him going to goal. He could be killed or raped. There are people in Grafton gaol who are out to get my family. I’m with [the defendant] and they know it – so it would be a death sentence.
Mandy is still in a relationship with the defendant. She explained that:
He’s going to the anger management course. We’re getting counselling. We want to get away from AVOs and work out the real problems instead of just going to the police all the time and just locking people up.
Another Aboriginal woman, Cynthia, said ‘I don’t want my man to go to gaol because he’s been in and out of institutions all his life. I prefer him to get counselling and go to anger management – things like that.’
The Indigenous women interviewed described their fear of isolation from the local Aboriginal community. Bonnie explained that when she would ‘get in a domestic’ with her defacto, she felt isolated from certain sections of the Aboriginal community in which she lived because she is from another tribal area. Her defacto is from the local tribal group (Bundjalung) and she felt pressured to take certain actions that were against her interests:
I didn’t want him going to gaol. I was worried about his family. I’m not from here. He’s Bundjalung - all his family are here. This is his community and my mob’s from down south. One time when he got sent to gaol his uncle died and I had a big argument with his family, his mum especially. Every time [the defendant] got into trouble they used to beg me not to go to the police. They used to say ‘go there and get him out of gaol.’ And when I’d put him in gaol because he mucked up, his mother would expect me to put up money for bail.
All of the Indigenous women interviewed commented that at some stage of the policing of AVO breaches, they were disappointed by police responses. Despite this, three of the women interviewed felt that they would still ring the police and report breaches. Christina stated that she will continue to report breaches but she just hopes that the officer whom she considered to be racist and sexist is not on duty:
I think having the AVO will help but I still really feel that he would have a level of intolerance and indifference towards me. You see his level of intolerance and indifference towards me was so extremely high back then that it would exist now. His lack of empathy, that real lack of caring, he needs something – he needs to be re-trained (if that would help).
However, for the majority of these women, police responses have led to such frustration that they would no longer contact the police to report AVO breaches. Reasons given included ‘why bother’ when ‘they take too long to get there’; ‘they don’t believe you’; ‘they don’t care’; ‘they’re smart arses’; ‘police don’t follow through with it’. Other comments included ‘Its no use ringing the police because they’ll just run you down’ and ‘I’m still in fear but I won’t go to the police again because they won’t believe me.’
The majority of the Indigenous women interviewed believed that having the AVO made no difference to the way the police dealt with their situation.
In relation to the delayed responses noted earlier, Bonnie asked: ‘what’s the use in having an AVO if it takes them so long to get there?’ Kim similarly commented ‘They don’t do their job when it comes to black fellas... I know with the black fellas they take too long to get there.’
When asked whether they would advise another woman to get an AVO, only half of the Indigenous women interviewed stated that they would. Even these women appeared reluctant, for instance Sue commented – ‘I’d tell them to go to the police – but I don’t know if they’d help them’. Kim stated that she would advise a woman to obtain an AVO but that she would ask the local magistrate to initiate the process rather than the police because she ‘explains how the AVO works and gives you a copy of the AVO, the police don’t do that’.
Several Indigenous women stated that their reason for not advising a woman to get an AVO was because of its potential to ‘backfire.’ Thelma commented:
I had an AVO out against [the defendant]... but it all turned around and backfired against me... when he doesn’t leave you alone and you call the police it’ll just backfire and you’ll be charged with aiding and abetting...The thing they should’ve done is move him out of town away from me. That’s what they should’ve done. He was sent [to gaol] but when he got out in April he just came to where I was a couple of days later and started up again.
These women have either allowed their AVOs to expire or have stated that, once their current AVO expires, they will not obtain another one. Other Indigenous women stated that they would advise a ‘white friend’ to get an AVO but not another Aboriginal woman because the police ‘wont do much’. Jill explained that she wouldn’t advise her cousin to get an AVO if she needed one because: ‘....I think the police think with blacks that its different. Because they don’t really help us as much as with the white fellas. They’d be straight there for them.’
Indigenous women interviewed for the BRAVO research acknowledged the limitations of AVOs and the need for other programs and services to assist victims of domestic violence. A majority of the Indigenous women interviewed were participating in some sort of domestic violence support group. These support groups must continue to be developed and implemented by Indigenous women. So too must perpetrator programs be specifically designed for, and operated by, Indigenous men. Indigenous women who have remained in a relationship with their partner have emphasised the need for anger management and counselling programs for their partners. Our children must also have access to culturally appropriate programs on family violence awareness.
Government departments and ATSIC national and regional councils must allocate specific funds to address family violence in our communities. Funding must be granted to Indigenous community members and groups, not to non-Indigenous people who purport to be experts on our problems. Family violence is a serious problem occurring in our communities and we are the ones with the solutions - and we must be the ones implementing programs.
Of course community action at the grass-roots level will by no means let the police service ‘off the hook’. There needs to be an extensive overhaul in the practice of policing of AVOs in Indigenous communities. This is essential to ensure quality police service provision and must include a number of initiatives. For instance, there is a profound need for widespread training of police officers in Indigenous family violence issues conducted by local Indigenous people (at both the intake/academy level as well as for serving police officers). A firm commitment to affirmative action policies to employ Indigenous women as police officers and Aboriginal Community Liaison Officers will also improve the situation facing Indigenous women in relation to the policing of AVOs.
The testimonies of Indigenous women who have AVOs are an indictment of the police service. However, if their stories are heeded, we can move towards an holistic response to family violence that involves a partnership between police, community services and Indigenous communities.
Loretta Kelly (BA, LLB) is an Associate Lecturer at the School of Law & Justice, Southern Cross University. She is a Gumbaynggirri and Djungutti woman who is involved in family violence programs at a grass-roots level.
 I would like to thank the un-named Indigenous women interviewed for this research who allowed me the honour of using their personal and heart-wrenching stories in this article. I would also like to thank Hayley Katzen, Associate Lecturer with the School of Law and Justice, Southern Cross University, who was the instigator of this research and Brian Fitzgerald, Head of the School of Law and Justice, Southern Cross University, who approved the time taken off teaching duties to conduct this research.
 I use the term family violence rather than domestic violence in the Indigenous context because: ‘Using the term ‘family’ in preference to ‘domestic’ provides a greater contextual understanding of the interlinking and inter-generational impacts of violence as its effects flow into and out of our communities.’ Atkinson J, ‘A Nation is not Conquered’  AboriginalLawB 15; (1996) 3(80) Aboriginal Law Bulletin 4, 5.
 The BRAVO project is part of the Northern Rivers Community Legal Centre’s community development work. The research project was developed and undertaken by Hayley Katzen, with funding support from the Law Foundation of NSW. This article stems from only one aspect of the BRAVO research, that is, Indigenous women’s experience of police responses to breaches of AVOs.
 The women’s stories selected for this article are drawn from a larger pool of stories used in the BRAVO report.
 Northern Rivers Community Legal Centre, Mabourah Dubay (Many Women), Report of the North Coast Aboriginal Women’s Access to Law Project (1998), referred to in Katzen H & Kelly L, ‘Chapter 3: Women’s experience of police responses to breaches of AVOs’ in Northern Rivers Community Legal Centre, BRAVO: Police Responses to Breaches of AVOs (Draft Report) (1999) 5.
 This issue is raised in the article written by a Maori woman, Stephanie Milroy, where the research was initiated by Pakeha (non-Maori), the interviews conducted by one Maori woman and the report in relation to Maori interviews written by another Maori woman. See Milroy S, ‘Maori Women and Domestic Violence: The Methodology of Research and the Maori Perspective’ (1996) 4 Waikato Law Review 56.
 For further information about the BRAVO methodology see Katzen H & Kelly L, above n 5, 1-15.
 The BRAVO research found that police generally take formal action where the breach involves physical violence. Ibid, 19-41.
 Telephone Interim Orders are Interim Apprehended Violence Orders that police can apply for if they attend an incident where they believe that a domestic violence offence has been committed or is likely to be committed and it is not practical to get to a court.
In order to serve the telephone interim order on the defendant, the police officer may direct the defendant to remain at the scene. If the defendant refuses to do so, then the police may arrest and detain him at the scene, or take him to a police station. Telephone interim orders remain in force for up to fourteen days. The order contains a summons advising the defendant of the date and time to appear in court in relation to the complaint.
 Including initiating AVOs against the victim eg ‘Then the copper just stuck one out on the both of us and told us to stay away from each other’; victims being charged with aiding and abetting; victims charged with attempted murder for defending themselves, etc.
 The urgent need for these programs was stressed recently at the Indigenous Workshop ‘What to do about family violence in Indigenous communities?’ 26 & 27 September 1999, Canberra ACT. A program for Indigenous men operates in Lismore on the north coast of NSW. Aboriginal men run anger management programs specifically designed for Aboriginal male perpetrators of family violence. This particular program is jointly funded by the Department of Corrective Services and the Department of Community Services.
 This issue was also identified at the above-mentioned workshop.