Police change approach to sex crimes

Sex crime is chronically under-reported, and often when cases get to court the odds can be stacked against complainants. Rob Kidd speaks to the women who were not believed, and looks at how police approach such cases.

“I know how these things go; no-one ever believes the victims.”

The young woman made the comment while giving evidence on the first day of 26-year-old Michael John Danyon Fraser’s Dunedin District Court trial in August 2020.

She and another woman accused the man they met on Tinder of slapping them and choking them without their consent, of raping them.

But ultimately she was right.

The jury did not believe them — and in legal terms they would never be victims, only complainants.

Jurors were not told but Fraser had been acquitted of sex offences against a third woman at an earlier trial.

Alice* spoke to the Otago Daily Times after the trials.

“You put yourself out there thinking it’s going to be worth it and justice will be served,” she said.

“But it’s a huge slap in the face.”

Alice said she had no choice but to force herself forward, to try to move on with her life.

“Karma will come around,” she said.

Less than two years after being cleared of criminal culpability, Fraser met another woman in Central Dunedin.

They went home together and consensual sex ensued.

The tone changed when Fraser slapped the victim, laughing it off when she protested.

Later, “without warning”, Fraser put his hands around her neck and choked her as she struggled for breath.

The victim fled to the bathroom and when she returned, the man forced her down on the bed.

She yelled “no” and “stop” as Fraser tried to pull her legs apart and he closed the bedroom door, telling her she was not leaving.

“You’re not going anywhere,” he said.

As a final insult, Fraser grabbed at the victim’s pants as she got dressed then lifted her top to fondle her before she left.

Earlier this month, he was jailed for two years and three months.

But it provided no solace for the first woman who had previously complained about Fraser.

“I’m just devastated for this girl,” Olivia* said.

“I honestly believe being put behind bars is where he belongs because then he’s out of reach for those young women.”

She told the ODT giving evidence at the trial in 2018 had been the most traumatic experience of her life.

“You’re sitting there so frustrated because they’re telling you you’re lying,” Olivia said.

“People have that one perception of how these cases are — you get pulled into a bush — but there’s so many ways it can happen.”

Going through the ordeal of facing a courtroom of strangers to tell her story only for Fraser to be acquitted left her disconsolate.

“I think it actually pushed me further into this role where I felt no-one understood — you can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel,” she said.

“I’ve never been at rock bottom like that before in my life.”

The under-reporting of sex crimes, as well as the revictimisation of witnesses who give evidence at trial has been recognised by Parliament with the introduction of the Sexual Violence Legislation Act in 2021.

The legislation changes trial processes and rules around giving evidence in a bid to protect complainants from additional trauma.

And critically, it allows judges to proactively address “misconceptions arising in sexual cases” — better known as rape myths.

Dunedin Adult Sexual Assault Team officer in charge Detective Sergeant Hamish Barrons said the perpetuation of those myths in the courtroom setting would have once been factored into police’s thinking when considering whether to prosecute, but that was no longer.

He was enthusiastic about the law change but said the “proof will be in the pudding” as to how it is practically implemented.

Det Sgt Barrons had headed the team for four years and he was keenly aware that, anecdotally, the rate of reporting of sex crimes was about 15%.

Raising that number was a key focus in his work.

“It’s the responsibility of the police to be a service to all and we’re constantly trying to think of ways to improve that reporting,” Det Sgt Barrons said.

“One of the things is trying to get rid of the misconceptions that police are a one-trick pony, [the idea] that either it’s a prosecution or it isn’t.”

He had instituted a three-tiered approach.

The first step would be for a victim to visit police and ask questions about the process, to decide whether they want to take a complaint further.

There was no pressure on them to disclose any details of their experience and Det Sgt Barrons said measures could be put in place to support them regardless of whether they wanted to press charges.

Such instances were becoming more common through strengthening ties with the university, he said.

Police more than ever were reliant on other agencies such as Ōtepoti Collective Against Sexual Abuse, instilling confidence in victims to come forward.

Secondly, some would approach police after an incident seeking to ensure such acts were not repeated but did not want to participate in a prosecution.

With the agreement of the complainant, officers would approach the alleged perpetrator and sit down for an informal discussion with them.

It was a chance to hear the other side of the story and often acted as a preventive measure in stopping further problematic behaviour.

Det Sgt Barrons said in such scenarios it was crucial to stress that no charges would be laid.

“We get away from the threat of prosecution … and by and large you get honesty,” he said.

If a victim wanted criminal charges laid, they would be interviewed on camera and an investigation would be launched.

Managing expectations was key, Det Sgt Barrons said, and long gone were the days of police pressuring complainants to testify in the hope of securing a conviction.

“We’re not trying to make out the garden’s full of roses. If we do that we’re letting our victims down,” he said.

With a staff of four detectives, the Adult Sexual Assault Team took on about 200 cases a year.

Det Sgt Barrons said in about 20% of them, charges were laid and the court process ran its course; half of the total caseload were fully investigated but fell short of the evidential threshold for prosecution; the remainder were dealt with informally, as outlined above.

An emphasis in his role was ensuring anyone who came forward to police with a complaint was appraised of their options and dealt with consistently, whether they fronted at a metropolitan station or a rural outpost.

So how do you measure success?

“If we were to look at adult-sexual-assault work in terms of success, that would be the wrong way to look at it,” Det Sgt Barrons said.

Meeting victims’ expectations was important, he said, as was prevention work that did not necessarily result in charges or convictions.

It was impossible to know how pivotal an informal chat with a potential offender could be.

“You don’t know what harm you’re minimising — you might have saved 10 girls,” Det Sgt Barrons said.

When Fraser appeared in court recently, having spent four months behind bars awaiting sentencing, he was a changed man.

At an early appearance while on bail he left the court idly twirling his keys, tight black top on a gym-inflated body.

In the dock this month he looked hollowed out.

His counsel John Munro, who repeatedly appealed bail decisions to the High Court to try to get his client out, said Fraser had lost 17kg while locked up.

He had recently been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder and was suffering in prison, mismanaged by authorities and an easy target for other inmates.

Mr Munro said Fraser wanted to undertake specialist sex-offender treatment and he needed a tailored programme because of his neurological condition.

That would not happen in jail.

Mr Munro argued home detention would be a punishment and would allow his risk to be addressed, therefore protecting the public.

“Denying him an opportunity to address his offending is an injustice,” he said.

After Judge Jim Large imposed the term of imprisonment, Mr Munro immediately indicated an appeal would be lodged.

A date for that hearing is yet to be scheduled.

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*Names changed to protect anonymity