For Queensland’s top cop Katarina Carroll, the honeymoon period afforded to new leaders to settle in their new role evaporated with catastrophic natural disasters and a global pandemic.
- The global pandemic placed an unprecedented demand on an already struggling Queensland Police Service
- Post-pandemic, her top priorities are domestic violence, curbing youth crime, victimisation and the road toll, as well as increasing recruit numbers
- She has laughed off rumours that a UK trip to a recent counter-terrorism conference was for a job interview
It has been a tumultuous three years since July 2019 when she became the 20th Queensland Police Commissioner and the first woman to fill the role in the service’s 160-plus year history.
She also inherited a growing problem of youth crime, a recruiting scandal, and low morale.
The global pandemic placed an unprecedented demand on an already struggling Queensland Police Service (QPS).
An internal review ordered by Commissioner Carroll in her first six months found demand for service jumped 48 per cent, clearance rates were down by 7 per cent, and there were significant numbers of abandoned calls in the previous five years as the police dealt with more complex crimes and community social issues.
Her plans to shape the service around prevention and tackling serious and organised crime were temporarily shelved as the QPS jumped into the driver’s seat to help navigate the COVID-19 pandemic.
The pandemic also meant Commissioner Carroll had an internal battle over the mandatory staff-wide COVID-19 vaccine policy issued in September last year that has led to the Supreme Court.
She told the ABC that while the vaccine mandate had been a challenge and a difficult choice to make, it was done for the right reasons.
“My workplaces had to be safe, as well as making sure that we protected the community,” she said.
Discontent in the ranks ‘definitely hurts’
There is also other internal disharmony confronting Commissioner Carroll and her leadership.
Results from last year’s Working For Queensland survey included criticism of the “disconnect” between police ranks and the Commissioner and her executive.
There were also many who reported a lack of trust in the organisation’s leadership.
The survey feedback also raised the issue that the Commissioner had not fully delivered on her promises and communication in such an operational organisation was lost in the layers of ranks.
Police sources have told the ABC part of that disconnect came from the Commissioner sometimes not being fully informed of key issues confronting the QPS.
“The pandemic added a layer that was so complex and so difficult when you’re trying to do all of this other work, and then for two years a lot of your attention is to the pandemic,” Commissioner Carroll said.
“I cannot even think I have the right words to describe how incredibly challenging it was for the QPS … and then on top of that, trying to bring about change.
Police sources said the “disconnect” and lack of trust was part of tensions between Commissioner Carroll, her executive and some of her 330 commissioned officers.
Commissioned officers — ranks between inspector and chief superintendent — are a vital conduit between the brass and 12,000 rank-and-file, to help execute service delivery to the community.
Last week, to further build trust and confidence, the Commissioner and executive held a two-day conference to hear concerns of her senior leadership team, made up of around of 100 of her superintendents, chief superintendents and civilian executives.
‘My people mean the world to me’
Commissioner Carroll said candid discussions about trust and confidence, as well as future strategy, were held during the conference and she and her executive would now meet three times a year with their senior leadership to talk through challenges, issues and priorities.
“So they can see exactly what we’re doing, how we’re doing it, but also have a say in the strategy,” she said.
She will also visit every Queensland police district over the next few months to meet with all the officers in charge of stations.
Commissioner Carroll, known for her compassion, said it “definitely hurts” hearing of unhappiness in her ranks whose wellbeing and safety was of the utmost importance to her.
“My people mean the world to me … it’s the reason why we perform so well … because we have good people.”
Renewed focus on rising crime rates
Commissioner Carroll laughed off rumours that she wanted out and her recent UK trip for a counter-terrorism conference was really to interview for the Commissioner of Metropolitan Police — she said she was here to stay.
“I think you get up to a new day to new excitement, hoping that your organisation is making a change in the community,” she said.
As crime rates naturally start to rise post-pandemic, her top priorities are domestic violence, curbing youth crime, victimisation and the road toll, as well as increasing recruit numbers.
The Commissioner has also been forging ahead to make her 15 police districts across Queensland more efficient under her Service Delivery Redesign Project (SDRP).
She said the overarching aim of the SDRP to improve frontline services to the public as demand continues to surge and relieve pressure on her police.
Commissioner Carroll wants a more efficient response to crimes such as less-serious break-and-enters, with only scenes-of-crime officers responding instead of uniform police and detectives.
“What the evidence clearly shows you is that the forensic services officers are extraordinarily thorough,” she said.
“The other thing is complainants really telling their story once, whereas in the past they used to tell their story many times.”
Commissioner Carroll said the SDRP would also “close the loop” and improve police responses in keeping complainants updated about investigations.
The project is based on the Greenfield Review, which many police criticised for not being inclusive of the role of detectives, the nature of serious crime investigations and relying on a rostering system of “approved strength”, as opposed to the actual strength that QPS often runs at of about 50 to 60 per cent of allocated staffing levels.
Commissioner Carroll said rosters were currently being reviewed, including the flexible working hours model, to meet demand – the highest calls for service are usually between Thursday night and Sunday.
She said while problems were identified and there was push-back from frustrated police in the first roll-out of SDRP in the Moreton District, community surveys showed public confidence was up.
“There were things we definitely could have done better — there were many learnings that come out of that,” she said.
“I know how many times our police have done very well.”
Commissioner Carroll said it was a juggle of competing priorities as Queensland police respond to around 300 calls a day for domestic violence and a 26 per cent jump in breaches of domestic violence orders in the past year.
Currently the QPS is the subject of a commission of inquiry into police practices in domestic violence investigations, following 89 recommendations adopted from a women’s safety and justice taskforce.
The taskforce report wrote many survivors felt let down by police and the judicial system.
At the time of the report’s release, Commissioner Carroll said while she did not fear an inquiry, she did not support the taskforce recommendation.
“We originally thought that the commission of inquiry could have waited because we are going through so many reforms, [and] to give us the opportunity to finalise them and come back with another review,” she said.
“That wasn’t the decision —that’s fine, I have no issue with that.
‘Our job is to protect victims’
Asked about her reaction to the criticism of police response to domestic violence, Commissioner Carroll said it affects her and her staff hard as they have worked to improve their response in the last two years.
“But on the other side, I know how many times our police have done this very well and how they’re invested in keeping communities safe and keeping our victims safe.”
She said there were some areas in the state where police jobs were back-to-back serious domestic violence incidents that were complex and dangerous.
“They sometimes involve mental health issues, drugs, alcohol, financial coercive control, abuse, and sometimes all of that,” she said.
“And there are cases where police will go to the same address many times and it is that complex — it’s hard to deal with that family dynamic.”
‘We could have got that better’
Commissioner Carroll said she was also keen to see the outcomes of a trial where police footage taken from victims in the aftermath of domestic and family violence would be used as evidence in prosecuting their attacker, and continuing the effective co-responder model between the QPS and partner agencies.
Commissioner Carroll said much had changed in terms of information sharing and assistance from partner agencies since the Greenfield Review highlighted the issue of police being the only 24/7 agency often responding to domestic violence matters.
It also found the implications of external agencies’ policies and their impact on police — particularly in the area of domestic and family violence — were not fully appreciated and considered prior to the implementation.
“I always think it’s about balance — that you’ve got to own up and say we could have got that better,” she said.
“But on the other side of that is this is a scourge in our society that’s increasingly getting worse.
Commissioner Carroll said she would like to see the inquiry look at streamlining how police responded to domestic violence matters by reducing some of their paperwork to enable them up to focus more on victims.
She said currently, the process and paperwork can take at least two officers off the road to deal with one incident for four to five hours.
Commissioner Carroll said there were many things that kept her awake at night, with probably the biggest issue being the safety and wellbeing of staff — such as getting a 4am phone call last week of shots fired at a Gold Coast Police Beat.
“There are other things … if we haven’t performed well, and the organisation gets heavily criticised – how we ride that wave, knowing behind the scenes we are performing tremendously well,” she said.
“But that doesn’t always play out publicly — it’s the things where you know every so often … didn’t go according to plan and there’s a tragedy — those things keep me awake.
“How do I improve the organisation to make sure that doesn’t happen again? How do I keep the morale of the police up when they’re getting heavily criticised and sometimes fairly, in certain instances, but often unfairly — and that’s a difficult balance.”
Commissioner Carroll said it was the continued support of the QPS and her family that gets her through each day.
“So when you think it can’t get worse, it often does get worse. But a new day comes along”.
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