Labour’s Poto Williams says she’ll be bringing her experience working to tackle domestic and sexual violence in her new role as Police Minister.
Two weeks after being appointed to the post, the Christchurch East MP told 1 NEWS she wanted to tackle the issue by looking at the “whole ecosystem” of factors that could contribute to domestic and sexual violence.
“We can’t just talk about what happens for victims. We’ve got to see the whole ecosystem and we’ve got to look at not only men and women, but also children who experience violence as well,” Williams said.
“All this trauma that people hold, unless we resolve it, we’re only going to continue to perpetuate the cycle of violence.”
Williams said the police portfolio would be interacting with ministries like Corrections and the Ministry of Social Development in the Government’s Joint Venture work programme. She would also working alongside Green MP Marama Davidson, who has been appointed in the new Minister for the Prevention of Family and Sexual Violence portfolio.
“We all have something to contribute … violence is not just about violence. It’s about stress, it’s about lack of income, it might be a lack of education, a lack of housing.”
But, someone's circumstances weren't an excuse for offending, she said.
Williams said police also had a role to play in that holistic approach.
“[Police] are, often, the people who are there first when an incident happens. So, they need to have a good understanding of who it is that they’re dealing with,” she said.
“Sometimes, that is situational. So, you turn up at an event … it’s not just about labelling people as victims and offenders.
“It’s actually about understanding what’s gotten to that person — just greater awareness of the pressures that families and people are under.
“But, also recognising that I come from a victim-centred place, I also understand that people who harm others have sometimes been victims themselves.”
Williams said police were aware of that, but there were times they went to a situation and had to deal with what was immediately happening.
“But if in the back of their mind, they understand the place that the person has come from, I think that’s really useful.”
Williams said she didn’t anticipate she’d get the police portfolio, but was “excited” to lend her experience after having run a women’s refuge in West Auckland and been involved in family violence networks.
Williams addresses her 2017 call to shift burden of proof to those accused of rape
In 2017, Williams, who at the time was Labour’s sexual and domestic violence spokesperson, said she wanted to see changes to how the justice system handled rape cases because victims didn’t have faith in the justice system, and consequently were unlikely to report it.
She called for police to believe rape accusers as a starting point, which would mean the burden of proof would shift to the person accused.
"Now, I know that runs up against 'innocent until proven guilty', and that would be one of the issues that we'd really have to consider long and hard, but I'm of the view that we have to make some changes,” Williams told RNZ at the time.
Hawke's Bay barrister Jonathan Krebs said at the time the idea probably wouldn’t get much support because it contradicted the basic principle of innocence until guilt is proven.
Williams didn’t say outright whether she still held the belief when 1 NEWS asked about the comments this week.
Instead, Williams said she wanted to see court and interview processes change to make a complainant’s “experience as less traumatic as possible”. She also wanted support for complainants to be bolstered.
“Our court system is not always that helpful in supporting victims of sexual harm … it’s a difficult area for people to feel confident and comfortable in.”
She said she was starting to see “some real changes to how the justice system deals with victims”.
The Bill stated it aimed to reduce the risk of trauma sexual violence complainants could experience in court, “while maintaining defendants’ fundamental rights and making sure the trial process remains fair”.
Williams said there was a “long way to go still”, but some steps were being taken “in the right direction”.
Police have a role to play - sector representative
A sector representative for family violence services in New Zealand said she welcomed the holistic approach to the issue, and that it made sense for ministries to be collaborating.
“For the first time … what we're actually seeing is at least opportunities for those ministries to be talking to each other about the direction that we’re going in, rather than ministries going in completely opposite directions, which has been in the case in the past,” The National Network of Family Violence Services general manager Merran Lawler said.
She said police had a role to play to better the experience of victims of family violence in the justice system.
“In particular, the need for police to understand that when they’re walking into a [family violence] situation, they are strangers to the dynamics that exist.”
For example, police may see “very visible” evidence of a physical incident, but it could be the result of someone defending themselves, Lawler said.
She said part of the difficulty complainants faced when they sought action from the justice system was that patterns of behaviour weren’t usually identified when people had been involved in family violence situations.
“Police are called to what might be considered low-level incidents … but it might be the fifth time in the space of a month that that’s occurred,” Lawler said.
“The tendency is to go into that scenario and treat the situation as if it was just some disturbance of the peace, rather than recognising that they might be a pattern associated with this.”
Lawler said an example of a pattern might be that people start yelling at each other after drinking, or yelling might happen before other forms of violence.
“In a family violence situation, one party is exercising power and control in mechanisms and physical violence is only one of those. The tendency, again, is to just treat family violence as physical.”
That meant even if there was a repeated pattern of incidents, but no physical evidence of it, there wasn’t much police could do, she said.
“If they aren’t laying charges or are only laying charges in the higher end of violence, it means the victims don’t get the accountability that is due to them.”
She also echoed Williams’ call for police to be mindful of the history behind a person’s offending.
“In terms of being called to an incident and arresting somebody … they are absolutely the perpetrator of violence at this time and in this relationship. But they, themselves might have experienced times, particularly growing up, of witnessing or being the victim of family violence.
“That in no way excuses that time, a grown man has a choice that he makes in using violence … it is his responsibility to get help.”
Lawler said she wanted to see police focus their efforts on “making sure victims are safe and perpetrators are held to account”, and leave the wraparound support given to victims and perpetrators to specialist family violence services.
But, she said policing around family violence “has come a long way”.