A coroner has called for urgent reforms to address the “inadequate response” of Queensland police to domestic violence after investigating the deaths of a woman and her ex-partner.
Doreen Langham died after Gary Hely set alight her townhouse in Browns Plains, south of Brisbane, to kill the 49-year-old and himself on 22 February 2021.
Coroner Jane Bentley found Hely had continually breached a domestic violence order and committed other crimes. Still, police did not consider his offending significant enough to make any real attempt to see him so he could be questioned and charged.
“It is possible that had every complaint been dealt with by relevant duties and obligations, Mr. Hely would not have killed Ms. Langham or himself,” Bentley said in her findings handed down on Monday.
Bentley found the police response to Langham’s complaints “was inadequate, and police officers failed to protect her and prevent her death”.
The experience Langham received “fell far short” of the basic expectations of the police response to domestic and family violence.
Bentley found the poor response indicated a “serious lack of training and consequently the understanding of the complex nature of domestic violence by police officers”.
Specialists within the Queensland police had also not recognized the seriousness of Langham’s complaints, and some reviews did not occur because of a lack of staff.
“A holistic investigative approach would have revealed that Mr. Hely had a concerning domestic violence history interstate and that the frequency and severity of his behavior were escalating,” she said.
Bentley said officers did not act out of malice, but their “inadequate response resulted from inadequate training and acute understaffing in the Logan district coupled with an ever-increasing demand for services”.
The coroner called for urgent reforms to address the inadequate response and for the state government to provide funding to trial a specialist victim-centered police station in Logan.
She also called for funding for a domestic violence specialist social worker based at every Logan district police station. She recommended that officers view the interstate criminal history of suspected domestic violence perpetrators.
Bentley accepted Queensland police have made efforts to address procedures and training but said multi-disciplinary teams were needed as police alone cannot deal with domestic violence.
She found the circumstances of Langham’s death show police have been unable to implement recommendations made in 2015 Not Now, Not Ever report on domestic violence.
The coroner said Hely’s New South Wales criminal history indicates he was never held sufficiently accountable for persistent and serious conduct against previous partners in that state.
Weeks after their two-year relationship ended, Hely went to Langham’s townhouse complex at about 2.30 pm the day before their deaths.
He was at the front of the home when Langham called the police about seven hours later.
Two officers responded about four hours after the call without looking at any history.
“They failed to fulfill their duties and obligations to investigate the matter and ensure Ms. Langham’s safety,” Bentley said.
“They were at her door for 40 seconds, during which they knocked on the door once and then quickly left when there was no answer.”
At the time, Hely was at the rear of the unit.
He waited for the officers to leave and then another two hours before entering Langham’s home.
Once inside, the pair struggled before Hely doused Langham with petrol and ignited the fire in the lounge room at about 3.30 am.
The mother of two, who had three grandchildren, died soon after the fire began.
The premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, said the government would carefully review the recommendations.
“We’ve had the women’s [safety and] justice taskforce already [and] there’s additional money for women’s safety,” she said.
Police commissioner, Katarina Carroll, supported the recommendations and said all levels of government, non-government organizations, businesses, and the community need to identify and deliver solutions.
In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is on 13 11 14, and the national family violence counseling service is on 1800 737 732. In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123, and the domestic abuse helpline is 0808 2000 247. In the US, the suicide prevention lifeline is 1-800-273-8255, and the domestic violence hotline is 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Other international helplines can be found via www.befrienders.org