How two cases shocked Queensland into action on domestic violence

·6-min read
<span>Photograph: Jono Searle/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Jono Searle/Getty Images

When Hannah Clarke and her three children were brutally murdered in 2020, a police detective said officers were keeping an “open mind” about whether the children’s father could have been “driven too far”.

A year after the ensuing outrage at the comments, just 30km from where Rowan Baxter poured petrol over Clarke and their children and set them alight, Doreen Langham was killed at the hands of her ex-partner Gary Hely, who had a record of domestic violence offences.

A coronial inquest heard the police response was “beset by inadequacies”, but the head of the state’s powerful police union, Ian Leavers, originally fiercely opposed a commission of inquiry into police culture and responses to domestic violence, labelling recommendations by the Women’s Safety and Justice Taskforce another “woke, out-of-touch report”.

Related: Families of murder victims Hannah Clarke and Doreen Langham join call for specialist police stations

This week, police hit a much more contrite tone as findings were handed down in both the Langham and Clarke coronial inquests. “We are going to do everything we can to be a part of changing that whole system to make sure we do make our community safer particularly for women,” the Queensland police commissioner, Katarina Carroll, told radio this week.

Experts say these two horrific murders not only shocked the nation but forced police to reckon with internal problems about how they respond to domestic violence cases.

“Sometimes there are memorable murders that have a way of mobilising public opinion and unifying a drive for change,” says the domestic violence expert Prof Kerry Carrington.

“These cases really rocked the core of people’s trust and faith in the criminal justice system.”

Julie Sarkozi, a solicitor at the Women’s Legal Service Queensland, says the two cases made it untenable for the Queensland police service (QPS) to continue with “business as usual” as both are examples of seemingly ordinary “Aussie blokes” committing shocking crimes.

“Both of these cases show the lethality of coercive control, that serious domestic violence does not necessarily [only] involve physical violence,” she says.

“Both cases also highlight the systemic and cultural issues in the QPS – from the lack of training into domestic violence, to officers not knowing how to follow their own operational manual and use existing QPS resources.”

She says Clarke’s case in particular has pushed the state government to commit to criminalising coercive control, with new laws expected this year.

The murders also took place at a time Australians were hungry for change on gender equality, with Carrington saying there was community sentiment that some of the status quo was no longer going to be tolerated.

“There is extensive disappointment with the police response, and it’s certainly not confined to Queensland. People are over the excuses and want genuine reform,” Carrington says.

Both Carroll and Leavers are now backing an ongoing commission of inquiry into police “cultural issues”, describing it as “an opportunity” to commit to reforms.

“We had started coercive control training before the taskforce recommended it,” Carroll told reporters on Thursday.

“There certainly has been an extraordinary amount of improvements. We very much agree with the recommendations that came out of the taskforce, things that we’ve been asking for years.”

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Carrington believes while the change in dialogue is a step in the right direction, extensive reform still needs to follow.

“There are [some QPS] reforms and they are very positive and I support them, but they’re just far too tokenistic,” she says.

“I cannot tell you anything that’s improved at all in the last couple of decades.”

While the police response was largely ruled appropriate in Clarke’s case, a coroner recommended urgent upgrades to officer training in dealing with domestic violence, and the trial of a specialist police station.

Carrington has been pushing for the introduction of specialist domestic violence police stations since 2015, as well as widespread reforms to how police are trained to respond to domestic and family violence.

“We have to make these institutional changes now … so [more] women don’t die. And that doesn’t mean more police, it means completely rearranging the entire police force,” she says.

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A Queensland police spokesperson says all of the coroner’s findings in relation to deaths of Langham and Clarke and her children, Aaliyah, Laianah and Trey, are being “carefully” considered.

“Significant change has been made to the way the QPS records and responds to domestic and family violence since these tragic events,” the spokesperson says.

“On average, police attend around 340 DFV [domestic and family violence] incidents a day. We estimate that around 40% of our time is spent preventing, disrupting, responding to, and investigating this scourge on our society.”

The spokesperson says police have implemented compulsory coercive control training for all officers and established the domestic, family violence and vulnerable persons command “to act as the strategic driver for DFV within the service”.

Guardian Australia has contacted the Queensland Police Union for comment.

Related: Hannah Clarke inquest: coroner says unlikely anyone could have stopped murders

But Sarkozi says changes to policing are not enough. She says lawyers and judicial staff should also be provided with compulsory domestic violence training.

“There have also been recommendations for specialist domestic violence courts, and that some of those are already being trialled in various areas,” Sarkozi says.

“Lawyers, who actually have some expertise when it comes to domestic violence and coercive control, make a real difference to victim-survivors.”

Betty Taylor, the chief executive of the Red Rose Foundation, says there is still “a long way to go” in our understanding of domestic violence and how we assess the risks of offending.

She points to false comments that had suggested “no physical violence” was committed against Clarke, saying the coroner’s report identified several instances of strangulation, assault and sexual coercion by Baxter.

“This doesn’t come out of the blue. Women aren’t murdered because someone has snapped,” Taylor says. “[The coroner said] every agency that interacted with her let her down.

“Looking in the rear-view mirror, I would like to think other things could have been done.”

Taylor says victims should never feel unheard or concerned that their issues won’t be dealt with appropriately by the authorities.

“I’d like to offer hope to women … If someone doesn’t take your safety seriously, move on and go to someone who will,” Taylor says. “That’s the message we’ve got to keep getting out to women. Always have hope.”

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