Shoot first, ask questions later

After a slight delay in the end of Semester 2, on account of two deferred exams, I was grateful to finally be on holidays. The post-exam high merged into the requisite two-week comedown. My days were spent feeling I should be studying, realising I had nothing to study for and then wondering how to fill my time. The nights were easy – a glass of wine (or two) to take the edge off the post-exam slump, in addition to trying to suppress trauma accumulated as the result of studying family law. Binning my well-worn, overly highlighted copy of the Domestic and Family Violence Act was cause for celebration. Unfortunately my celebratory drink was a tad pre-emptive. One phone call and the world of domestic violence became part of my reality.

It had taken most of November to overcome the ordeal that was criminal law and that was with the buffer of social media and the 17-year-olds to keep me sane. Family law was another beast altogether. I was en-route to the supermarket to procure some well-earned treats to go with my celebratory wine when I received a call from a close friend. She’d just split with her long-term partner and I was eager for a post-breakup update, maybe even the mention of potential rental options. I was wrong.

‘Hello! You’re calling to tell me that you’ve found a place to live and we can go inspect it tomorrow?’

‘He threatened to shoot me.’

‘What?!’

‘He said, “If you ‘go for me’ I will shoot you and then I’ll shoot myself because I will have nothing else to live for.”‘

‘What?!?!’

My friend’s ex had a nasty, slightly controlling streak to him, which is why I was eager to see her start her new life in her own place. A threat of physical violence, however, was beyond unexpected. We knew that dealing with the financial aspect of the separation was not going to be pretty given her ex-partner’s preoccupation with the mighty dollar but neither of us expected it to come down to a potential murder-suicide. That shit didn’t happen to people like us, it happened to those other people, over there. I couldn’t tell you where ‘over there’ was, I just knew it wasn’t here. I was wrong.

There was only one option – report it to the police. I mean, that’s what they’re there for. But, by then, enough time had passed for self-doubt to creep in and my friend had started to second-guess the danger involved. Aided by the sad reality that police intervention would only escalate the situation, the call ended with no commitment from my friend either way.

I knew enough about domestic violence to know that my friend was at risk. I also knew that the police can flag a person or address as a ‘matter of concern.’ The only option was to encourage my friend to go with me to the station, preferably sooner rather than later. My little Fiat, however, was out of fuel. A quick u-turn followed by a two-second pause at the intersection and the fuel station was in view, a mere twenty metres ahead. Relieved I put my foot on the accelerator only to slam on the brake with the sudden appearance of blue and red flashing lights in my rearview mirror.

‘Did you not see that enormous red sign back there that said ‘STOP’ on it?’

The police officer’s tone, sarcastic bordering on condescending, left me flummoxed. I was so determined to get to my friend – not wanting her final memory to be a murder-suicide on the front page of The Courier Mail – that I assumed everyone would be aware of the urgency of the situation, especially a police officer who regularly dealt with dangerous situations involving guns.

It’s almost embarrassing to admit but nearly twenty years as a road user and I had never been pulled over for any kind of wrongdoing. Sure, there were the random Random Breath Tests but I didn’t drink and drive so they were a non-event. Even so, they still had the ability to make me feel guilty. Those never-ending seconds blowing into a plastic tube spent second-guessing myself, wondering if I’d been sneakily drinking and would end up over the limit, even though I hadn’t touched booze in a week. But perhaps that’s just me.

‘I did Officer. I saw it. I always stop at STOP signs. My father taught me to drive and he always enforced the idea that you must stop at STOP signs. It’s just that…’

It was at this point I burst into tears. As far as I was concerned, I’d stopped.* The stress of potentially having my friend as Australia’s next victim on the Counting Dead Women Facebook page, in addition to being further delayed without any idea how to  exit the situation any faster, took away any sense of control that remained. It’s not like I could just put my foot down and drive off, like I would with any other condescending male. To start with, I had no fuel. Secondly, he had a gun.

The police officer, not expecting such an emotional response, told me to take a breath and calm myself down. Usually this only escalates me further – most males know that it’s not an ideal response when dealing with a crying female – but given the power dynamic it was something he could get away with. He took this opportunity to check my car for defects, a slap in the face given that my Fiat was relatively new and a very much well-loved addition to my family, and returned without anything to report.

‘I understand that were driving to get fuel. And that your friend has been threatened. Has she reported it to the police?’

‘No, she hasn’t. That’s why I was going to see her, to go WITH HER to report it to the police. But I have no fuel, which is why I did a u-turn.’

‘Right. Well, you see, this conversation is recorded on this little camera here and you’ve just admitted that you saw the STOP sign so I’m going to have to go ahead and give you a ticket.’

‘But I need to get to my friend. Her ex has threatened to… Look, I need to get to my friend. It’s urgent.’

I should note, as I am typing up this blog article, the feeling of frustration begins to return and threatens to overwhelm me. I’m tempted to just throw my hands in the air and end the article here but that’s poor form as a writer. In hindsight, I’m unsure how I managed to stay calm while stuck on the side of the road, trying to emphasise to someone who deals with violence daily how urgent it was that I get to my friend who’d just had her life threatened. But, no, just like I did then, I will persevere and not resort to petty name-calling.

‘So is there an emergency, other than what you’ve just told me, that would warrant you disobeying the law?’

‘You mean, other than my friend’s life being threatened? No, there’s not.’

‘Okay, well I’ll just go write up this ticket.’

The officer pulled out his ticket book and pen.

But…

I stopped, realising it was fruitless. I could outline the rest of the conversation, tedious as it was, but that would only lead to a long nasty rant and no one needs to read that shit. Because, here’s the thing, I get that the police officer was just doing his job. I also get that he hears stories like this all the time and that a decent portion of them are most likely lies. It’s not even the $353 fine I received. Although, given that’s over half of my fortnightly earnings, it’s a pretty bitter pill to swallow. Nor is it the three demerit points, which given a clean record for nearly twenty years, is a bit annoying.

It’s the fact that I spent 14 minutes on the side of the road by a person who deals daily with guns and is well aware how quickly a bullet can kill, while my friend was returning home to her ex who has just threatened to shoot her and then himself. It made me wonder, if this didn’t constitute an ’emergency’ then what did?

The more I thought about it, the more annoyed I became at the police officer. Then I’d feel guilty because who am I to judge, I’m not perfect. I know I annoy others at times. In terms of annoying traits, there are two in particular that stand out. Despite being an optimist, my ability for self-doubt could out-rival any naysayer. One-third of my day is spent in action, the remaining two-thirds involves me second-guessing the choices I’ve made, while seeking validation from others that my original choice was indeed the right one.

The other annoying trait is my ability to overthink. I question everything. I’m frequently told to stop analysing and just get over it. In other words, it’s just the way it is. I do get why it’s annoying for those who are happy with the status quo, as well as those who have to deal with my constant questions.

Luckily there are those who are understanding of my need to understand. One such friend just so happens to work in the area of emergencies. No, not like the ambulance/fire fighter kind. I know, I was just as disappointed, I thought I might get a fun trip with the sirens on. We’re talking more the Brisbane 2011 floods and how you deal with the fallout of a city underwater kind of emergency, so just as important as a trip in an emergency vehicle with the sirens blaring.

The definition, pulled directly from the Queensland Disaster Management Arrangements Participants Guide (Version 6.2), stated that the terms disaster and emergency are used interchangeably. In this case, they used the word disaster, which was described as:

A serious disruption in a community, caused by the impact of an event, that requires a significant coordinated response by the State and other entities to help recover from the disruption.

It still didn’t sit right. Sam had told me he thought that the term emergency was more appropriate than disaster but what was the difference? And if my friend potentially getting shot was not an emergency then perhaps it could constitute a disaster? After two days I gave up and risked being ostracised by yet another friend for asking too many questions.

Disaster Text Message

And it did, it finally made sense. It all slotted into place. The police officer had never been affected by domestic violence. Therefore, for him, it was not an emergency. But with 79 women killed because of violence in 2015, in addition to the 84 women killed by violence in 2014, the sad reality is that too many Australian women are living in a state of emergency. It doesn’t happen to women ‘over there’ but it does happen behind closed doors. Perhaps if we could take domestic violence to the streets people would see it for what it really is, an issue that does affect them and an emergency worthy of attention.

Unfortunately, that’s the Catch 22, domestic violence is just that, domestic – it remains in the private realm and out of the public arena. That’s not something I can address as  a lowly first year law student. There is one thing I can do. Based on logic alone, a police officer with the duty to serve and protect, who has been regularly exposed to the insidious world of domestic violence, would understand that a female’s life being threatened through a murder-suicide scenario would constitute an emergency.

I understand that the police officer was just doing his job. I understand that the police officer is most likely lied to on a daily basis, if not multiple times per day, even multiple times per hour. I don’t dare to question the difficulty attached to being an enforcer of the law when the law doesn’t always make sense. However, in this instance, I do question what constitutes an emergency.

For that reason, I’m contesting the infringement notice. I’ve written to the ‘issuing officer’ at the relevant police station. If necessary, I’ll take it to the Magistrates Court to state my case. Sure, I’ll doubt my decision – I already have but it’s too late to change my mind.

But, I’m not worried because I have a backup plan. Every time I begin to second-guess myself I’ll remember the 79 women killed by violence in 2015, simply because domestic violence in Australia does not seem to constitute an emergency. And when that’s not enough, I’ll seek out the friends who encourage my ability to question because, as I continue to question, I begin to acknowledge that the status quo we’ve come to accept isn’t really the norm we should be aiming for.

 

* I’ve since found out, from the friend who had her life threatened, that, once stopped at a STOP sign you must wait at least five seconds before proceeding. She was given this information directly by a police officer. There you go, you have been warned. Maybe I should start charging for these Public Service Announcements. In fact, I might need to if my request for leniency is rejected and I have to pay the $353 fine. It’s either that or instant noodles – for the rest of the year.

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