Meet the police who have worked hard amid the 'shadow pandemic'

Big year: Detective Senior Sergeant Tony Coxall oversees the Central Highlands Family Violence Investigation Unit. Photo: Kate Healy
Big year: Detective Senior Sergeant Tony Coxall oversees the Central Highlands Family Violence Investigation Unit. Photo: Kate Healy

This year has presented many challenges for the community and police alike, with lockdown pressures causing reports of family violence to soar in the region.

Detective Senior Sergeant Tony Coxall oversees the Victorian Central Highlands Family Violence Investigation Unit (FVIU) and said it had been a challenging year.

This was especially so at the beginning of the year, with the number of family violence incidents reported to police increasing by 67.5 per cent between April and June, compared to the same period in 2019.

He said police had continued to strive to take action about the increasing number of incidents as quickly as possible as well as being proactive in supporting victim-survivors throughout the year.

"This has been difficult at times to navigate through the array of changing COVID-19 circumstances," Detective Senior Sergeant Coxall said, though adding that the response to family violence had been "constant and without waver".

"This has at times been resource-intensive and at times tiring but it is important to continue to provide confidence to victim-survivors that they can report incidents, receive support and be listened to."

Increasing reports

Detective Senior Sergeant Coxall said frontline police had played a "vital role" in providing the initial response to all family violence incidents this year.

Many cases were of the "lower risk" threshold and so as a result, were actioned by frontline police members.

Detectives took on the cases which presented a "higher risk or required complex and/or protracted investigation skills" and sometimes investigations were jointly conducted by detectives and frontline police.

To cope with the stark increase in reports, detectives increased their workloads and learnt better time management skills to stay on top of investigative timelines. But despite the increase in reports, he stressed that no shortcuts were taken.

"Without the partnership and support of frontline police, the unit would have been swamped by the increase in reports,' he said, adding that many of these reports were from people filing a family violence report for the first time.

BIG YEAR: Senior Sergeant Todd Sparkman and Detective Senior Sergeant Tony Coxall of the Central Highlands Family Violence Investigation Unit. Photo:

BIG YEAR: Senior Sergeant Todd Sparkman and Detective Senior Sergeant Tony Coxall of the Central Highlands Family Violence Investigation Unit. Photo:

Detective Senior Sergeant Coxall said police saw first-time reports of family violence as a positive sign.

"It's not the fact that family violence is present, of course, but the positive is the fact that victims have the confidence to report it," he said.

"Often, in partnership with our service agencies and extended investigation, further historical offences are disclosed and proven."

Through these first-time reports, one emergent theme was of youth offenders - with students learning from home for much of the year. The FVIU worked closely with the Youth Tasking and Sexual Offences and Child Abuse Investigation Team when these incidents occurred.

"First time reports and reports involving youths and children give us visibility of family violence offenders and this is vital to ensure an effective, complete and timely response."

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Investigations amid COVID-19

Victoria Police established Operation Ribbon at the start of the year in anticipation of increased family violence incidents with the state in lockdown.

Detective Senior Sergeant Coxall said this operation, which involved detectives regularly checking in with known victim-survivors and perpetrators, had brought what the unit does on a daily basis into focus.

The unit has relied heavily on intelligence support in an attempt to predict trends and causation patterns throughout the year, so detectives would be prepared to respond and service those in crisis.

While the unit's core processes remained unchanged, they have evolved to be 'COVID-safe'.

"This has at times included relocation and division of the work unit in order to ensure ongoing services in case of a COVID-related incident forcing office closure," he said.

Most meetings with other stakeholders have been conducted online, including internal meetings among detectives.

However, Detective Senior Sergeant Coxall said continuing with face-to-face meetings with victim-survivors had been "non-negotiable".

The FVIU along with all other investigation and response detectives has maintained a personal presence whilst ensuring safety for both ourselves and those in need of support

Detective Senior Sergeant Tony Coxall

"[They] need personal reassurance, as do children," he said.

Meanwhile, face-to-face contact was also required to arrest, process and hold perpetrators to account.

"The FVIU along with all other investigation and response detectives has maintained a personal presence whilst ensuring safety for both ourselves and those in need of support," he said, adding this was possible through wearing personal protection equipment and with the advice of COVID-19 safety officers.

New strategies

With social restrictions in place, numerous new strategies were implemented so the FVIU could continue to interact with support agencies and the court system.

"Technological solutions have streamlined some processes and we have found some efficiencies in the communications and networking that will remain post-COVID-19," Detective Senior Sergeant Coxall said.

The FVIU includes three court liaison officers who provide support and expertise for victim-survivors attending the Ballarat Specialist Family Violence Court, as well as the Bacchus Marsh Magistrates' Court.

Back- Leading Senior Constable Larinda Klein, Senior Sergeant Todd Sparkman, Detective Senior Constable Kate Porter, Detective Constable Aaron White, Leading Senior Constable Justin Evans, Detective Leading Senior Constable Nathan Vercoe, Detective Sergeant Chris Hardiman, Detective Senior Sergeant Tony Coxall Front- Detective Sergeant Alanna McDonald, Detective Senior Constable Rowan Thorne and Detective Senior Constable Christopher Brown

Back- Leading Senior Constable Larinda Klein, Senior Sergeant Todd Sparkman, Detective Senior Constable Kate Porter, Detective Constable Aaron White, Leading Senior Constable Justin Evans, Detective Leading Senior Constable Nathan Vercoe, Detective Sergeant Chris Hardiman, Detective Senior Sergeant Tony Coxall Front- Detective Sergeant Alanna McDonald, Detective Senior Constable Rowan Thorne and Detective Senior Constable Christopher Brown

Detective Senior Sergeant Coxall said these members had been subject to increased workloads due to an influx in cases and civil orders.

He said they had introduced an extensive information recording process to assist victims, prosecutions and the court.

"I believe they have played a major role in streamlining the daily FV court list and in partnership helped the judicial system and the efficiencies associated on court day."

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Whilst gathering this information, he said members had been fully supporting and listening to victim-survivors so the "personal touch" had not been lost.

Both frontline and members of the family violence unit have also been assisted by family violence training officer, Senior Sergeant Todd Sparkman, who "provides exceptional ongoing advice, direction and quality control review to both the unit and frontline members".

Lessons learned

While police still aren't sure why the number of reports increased so dramatically at the start of the year - the second-highest increase in the state - Detective Senior Sergeant Coxall believed it could have something to do with the community's confidence in reporting family violence to service agencies or police as COVID stresses escalated.

"An increase in confidence and also a highly supportive service agency partnership has ensured effective service delivery and support for victim-survivors."

He said agency support services were still seeing increased levels of support demand, and police were still experiencing slightly elevated levels of reporting - though nowhere near what they were during the first lockdown.

"Things have calmed down a little over the past two months but we won't be complacent. The FVIU will continue to provide a professional and personal response whenever and to whoever requires our services."

He said he was very proud of the FVIU members for their efforts this year.

I think we have grown throughout the pandemic. We have learnt, adapted and continue to overcome in order to provide support and an effective investigative response to victim-survivors. We will continue to learn and adapt into the future.

Detective Senior Sergeant Tony Coxall

Reflecting on the year that has been, he said he had learnt that it was impossible to look after others without first ensuring your own health and well-being.

"The Victoria Police members within my unit are all a part of the community and when not working hard during shift times, they are all at home, within the community and subject to the same changes and restrictions placed on all members of the community.

"We have made mistakes but owned them and learnt to do better.

"At times it has been vital for the unit to be understanding, agile and supportive of each other. This team approach has ensured an effective and committed response to those in need.

"I think we have grown throughout the pandemic. We have learnt, adapted and continue to overcome in order to provide support and an effective investigative response to victim-survivors. We will continue to learn and adapt into the future."

Need help? WRISC Family Violence Support - 53333666, Child and Family Services (Cafs) - 53373333, or 1800RESPECT

This story Meet the police who have worked hard amid the 'shadow pandemic' first appeared on The Courier.