No Investigation and No Justice: An interview with solicitor Karen Iles’ on her police accountability campaign

15 Mar 2023

More often than not, police deepen inequality in Aboriginal peoples’ lives by either unnecessarily intervening, or by failing the victims of crime they claim to be protecting. Phoebe Mcilwraith interviews Karen Iles (Dharug) about her demand for justice in a country where police continue to fail Black women and children.

Readers please be advised this article mentions sexual assault.

“Too many coppas, not enough justice”, is a common protest chant I have heard at political actions since I was little. The chant uncovers a deeply felt and complex reality for Aboriginal communities; that an overt police presence or involvement of police does not and has not equated to an increase of justice for our people.

While other children in the colony may be told how gunjis (police) are “here to help” and how to contact them at the first sign of trouble, in my Koori-majority household this was never the case. I knew, for my family, gunjis did not have our best interests at heart and the less surveillance they had on us – the better. Even when I had a male housemate act threatening towards me during lockdowns, I never called in a gunjibal (police officer) to feel protected – I called my brothers, my Uncles and a Black family friend. 

I turned to people who I knew would prioritise my safety and, as told since childhood, gunjis have never counted as someone to turn to. Sadly, through my time in the legal profession and listening to the stories of my jidjas (sisters) this belief has been confirmed many times over.

Recently, I sat down with Karen Iles, a Dharug woman and solicitor. Last year Karen waived her legal right to anonymity in order to publicly demand justice for victims of child sex crimes and speak to the issue of police failure as a victim-survivor herself. She has since spoken to a number of media outlets and campaigned for government to enact legislation to make police investigate serious crimes.

Phoebe: Would you be able to yarn about your experience and what has compelled you to speak out about this now?

Karen: As a 14-year-old girl, I was the victim of a series of aggravated child sexual assaults that occurred in both Queensland and New South Wales.

While I did write down how I was feeling in my childhood diary, I didn’t talk to many people about this. I came forward to New South Wales police about these assaults in my early 20s. But over 18 years later, police have failed to do anything. So I felt compelled to go public with my truth, with an investigation by the Guardian, to make something change – not just for me but for other women and girls having to go through the same system.

Phoebe: Take us through your experience with the gunjis – how did reality match up with your expectations? 

Karen:  I feel like I’ve been failed and I know this is such a widely felt experience especially with the stories shared to me since coming forward. 

I first reported at Newtown Police Station in 2004 when I was in my early 20’s. I tried to give the police as much detail as possible. I then made a subsequent report and statement at Redfern Police Station in 2004 that same month. I included things like pages from my childhood diary. I had witnesses, I gave locations, names of the boys and men who raped me, the gang they were part of, schools some of the younger ones attended and named another victim. 

Then there was nothing.

Between 2004 and 2018 I called both Coolangatta and Redfern Police countless times to follow up on what they had done with the investigation. It was really traumatic to pick up the phone – let alone be told no one who was on duty could help. I was constantly leaving messages.

Then in 2018 when I again, part of my annual to-do list on my fridge, contacted police in both Queensland and New South Wales. I was floored with the response. This time a police officer at Coolangatta Station told me that my statement, and the file, had been destroyed. They used the word “shredded”. They said they couldn’t find any documents relating to my complaint. I was then asked to get the file from NSW Police. Unfortunately, Police at Redfern told me that nothing existed on file and asked me to sit down and report again. I spent another 90 odd minutes in a interview room, on my own, with a single male police officer, detailing the rapes all over again. He wrote it all down and promised he would “get to the bottom of it.” I’ve never heard back from him and his notebook has never been produced by NSW Police. 

In 2021, again in my routine “annual” phone call to the Police to follow up, I was told by an officer at Redfern the case was closed within days of me making the initial report at Redfern in 2004. For me this was the last straw. I made complaints to the Police conduct and integrity complaints mechanisms in both states. I made Freedom of Information applications. Nothing of any substance came back. There was no record of any investigation at all whatsoever.

Then – without explanation Police in Queensland produced a scanned copy of my statement that I gave Redfern Police in 2004. The rest of the evidence I gave to police has never been produced.

Now, 18 months later I am told the matter is open in both Queensland and New South Wales. As such I won’t comment on the progress of the investigation.

Since then, I’ve been campaigning for increased accountability for Police, and an end to Police investigating complaints of poor Police conduct.

I’m fortunate enough to be well-educated, I’m a practising lawyer, and as someone who understands this system really well, if getting justice for what happened to me has been this difficult my heart hurts for other women, particularly other First Nations women having to deal with this.

Phoebe: As a victim-survivor yourself and advocate in this area, what are some of the barriers to justice First Nations women face? 

Karen: First Nations survivors who come forward in the interest of justice face a number of barriers already. Often confronting personal barriers of shame, fear, denial, or lack of understanding about what sexual violence is, which can lead to later reporting. There are social barriers such as victim blaming, slut-shaming, racism, misogyny, disbelief from police and others, and communal barriers such as historical distrust of police and government. 

This follows a long history of sexual violence and police negligence against First Nations women and girls from invasion to today. Even back in 1992, the report, “Without Consent: Confronting Adult Sexual Violence”, recognised that police response to claims of sexual violence brought forward by Aboriginal women are not prioritised, are ‘slow to respond’, and police ‘have sexist or racist views’. In 2022 we saw in the media testimonies being submitted and published in the final report of the Independent Commission of Inquiry into Queensland Police Service responses to domestic and family violence which demonstrated how prejudice is ingrained in the police force and that there is a underlying culture of misogyny and racism

As victims, we’re retraumatised by the police and then we have to deal with the public, where there is a trend of the general public mistrusting women’s reports of sexual assault or violence – defaulting to a position of scepticism and suspicion.  

Phoebe: What needs to change and what does your campaign call for? 

Karen: Currently, the law in Australia does not impose a duty on police; either a duty of care or a duty to investigate to a transparent set of standards. 

The public may believe police should have a ‘duty of care’, a responsibility to protect the public from harm or injury. However, under current law, judges have been hesitant to confirm whether police have this duty.

There is also no ‘duty to investigate’, which is the responsibility to look into an allegation brought to police. Without legally enforceable minimum duties of investigation, we have seen police dismiss complaints due to perceiving victims as ‘argumentative’ or because they have called police repeatedly

We need a stronger, public framework of clear duties and minimum standards to hold police accountable to. This needs to be regularly monitored by an outside body who will also investigate police conduct when failure occurs. Having internal investigations of police misconduct is clearly not working 

I am campaigning for changes to our laws:

  1. Police must investigate the allegations of child sex crime victims – the law must clearly reflect this as a duty of care and a minimum duty to investigate. 
  2. Police conduct is independently, transparently and effectively investigated to ensure police are held to their duty of care and duty of investigation – No more police investigating police. 

Through these we can alter fundamental failures in the legal and accountability frameworks of policing while demanding national consistency from state, territory and federal governments.

By demanding these reforms for child sexual assault, there can be flow-on reforms for other serious crimes like murder and how the cases of First Nation women and children are handled by police.

Aside from this campaign, we put in a submission to the Senate Inquiry into missing and murdered First Nations women and children which discussed how, through unpacking my experience, the experience of our clients and nationally profiled cases, we can see the impact of lack of accountability for police investigation in the cases of First Nation women and children.

Phoebe: What can community do to support your campaign?

Karen: Sexual violence against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and girls has always been present in this colony; police failure to protect us is deeply rooted in our colonial history but it does not have to be this way. First Nations and non-Indigenous women and allies can come together in solidarity for campaigns like this one, to help end violence against all women and children. 

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