Less than six percent of alleged sexual assault offences in the NT recorded over 22 months until October were publicly reported by the NT Police, an NT Independent analysis that compared crime statistics to police media statements shows, including three months where no sex crimes were made public by police at all.
There were 46 press releases about sexual assaults and related offences, issued by the NT Police’s newsroom from January 2020 to October 2021, while data from the Attorney-General and Justice Department shows there were 862 sexual assaults and related offences recorded during the same period.
Only 5.3 per cent of all cases reported were made public in police media releases.
Of the 46 sexual assaults reported by the police, 28 were reported to have happened in Darwin and rural areas, four in Katherine, four in Alice Springs, three in East Arnhem Land, two in Tennant Creek, and one case each in Marrakai, Mataranka, and on the Tiwi Islands. There was one listing that showed only that the assault had happened in the Northern Territory, and one case in Western Australia which involved extradition.
In March, the NT Independent published a series of articles exposing how alleged rapes, and sexual assaults, including of children, had either not been made public soon after they had happened – even in cases when the alleged offender was still at large – or the sexual part of the assault had been hidden, and in one case, the executive had not made public the alleged rape element of a break-in, only describing it as a break-in and robbery.
NT paper won an NT Media Award for best crime reporting for the series, with judges saying if it were not for this extraordinary series of sex crimes would never have seen the light of day.
“The suppression of crime-related details by senior police caused great angst in the community,” the judges said.
Police published media releases on 36 sexual assaults in the 10 months since then, however only 12 sexual assaults were reported by the police newsroom in the 14 months prior. In the three-month period from December 2020 to the end of February 2021 no sexual assaults made it into police media releases, despite there being 117 incidents of sexual assault reported to police in the same period.
In February last year ABC published data for all Australian jurisdictions from 2008 to 2018 , which showed in 2017 the NT surpassed Queensland, becoming the jurisdiction with the highest rate of sexual assault reports not followed up by police because they did not believe a sexual assault had occurred.
The report showed that in 2018, 19 per cent of sexual assaults reported to Territory police had an investigation outcome of “not pursued”, which is described as “unfounded” or “rejected” in other states and territories and excluded from crime counts.
To give context, in 2017 about 16 per cent of Queensland reported sexual assaults were not pursued, while in NSW it was about six per cent that year and it was about 3 per cent in Tasmania in 2016.
The NT also had the highest rate of reported sexual assaults in the country, with ABC citing research from the Australian Bureau of Statistics showing the Territory recorded 145 reports of sexual assaults per 100,000 people in 2018, compared to a national rate of 105 per 100,000 people.
The next highest rate was NSW with about 126, with the lowest Tasmania at about 30.
The ABC also reported in March 2020 that almost one in three people charged with sexual assault in the NT over the past decade had their case dismissed or were found not guilty.
The data obtained by the NT Courts showed that from 2008 to 2017, 1,417 people were charged with one or more sexual assault offences.
Of that number, 428 people had the main offence they were charged with dismissed, or were found not guilty. There were 130 people who had the main charge against them withdrawn by the prosecution, 265 were jailed and and 282 people had their sentence partially or fully suspended.
NT Police not adhering to its own transparency guidelines
NT Police media manager Rob Cross did not respond to questions from the NT Independent about police reporting of sex crime including how they make decisions about which crimes are put into media releases.
Or how their decisions fit in with and compare with the NT Police’s “transparency guidelines”.
Those guidelines state any officer-in-charge of an investigation to is allowed to “provide information to the media provided this does not compromise the investigation, identify alleged, offenders, identify victims (unless permission is granted and the victim(s) is over the age of 18) or disclose police tactics”.
“Police may release identifying information of persons they are unable to locate by other means, who are believed to have information which will assist with a serious investigation and whereby public safety is a justified concern,” it states.
The media release guidelines – which are confusingly worded – state they ensure the following matters are proactively considered for public release, and if information falls within one or more of the following categories, it should be considered for public release.
• Timely, significant events of likely public interest.
• Requirement for public assistance or witnesses where members in charge believe there is a real likelihood media can assist with this part of their investigation.
• Serious incidents such as robbery, serious assault, fatal motor vehicle crashes.
• Proactive, positive PFES stories of likely public interest.
• Strategic priorities with key educational messages such as road safety – drink drivers caught.
• Significant arrests, charges and court dates.
• Public safety concerns.
The transparency guidelines go on to state the media unit will endeavour to provide a response to all requests for information from media.
The NT Police media unit and the executive do not acknowledge the NT Independent, and do not respond to emails, although neither Mr Cross nor Police Commissioner Jamie Chalker have explained why they would be breaking their own guidelines.
Almost all of the information used by the NT Independent for articles exposing alleged crimes not reported by police, comes from police who are angry with the police executive’s suppression of the information.
Accusations of suppression of sex crimes information from the public
Among the alleged crimes made public by the NT Independent was the case of a three-year-old boy who was playing in his family’s fenced-in yard when a man approached the toddler and drew him close to the fence before the man allegedly exposed his penis and sexually assaulted the toddler in March 2021.
A police source even described the incident as “every parent’s worst nightmare”, but the NT Police refused to comment or provide information to the public about the heinous incident.
Another expose from the NT Independent was the case of an Alice Springs woman who woke in her bed to find a teenager with his fingers in her anus in February 2021 during a break-in and robbery.
The NT Police had previously put put a press release about the break-in and robbery aspect, but again did not make the sexual assault public. However about a media release half an hour after that article was published saying a 15-year-old boy had been charged with sexual intercourse without consent.
Another suppressed case involved a registered sex offender caught outside a little girl’s bedroom with a “rape kit” arrested by police in March, who then retrieved video from his phone that showed he had been in the girl’s room on several occasions to sexually assault her – however, police did not disclose this case to the public.
A woman was also allegedly raped on a footpath in front of homes during the day by an alleged perpetrator who was on the run for several weeks after the incident. It was not made public by the NT Police for three days and then it was only referred to as an alleged assault.
Also in March of this year, three teenage boys, who were out on bail, allegedly attempted to rape a woman at Pinelands in January. It was described only described as an “aggravated assault” in the NT Police media release, which police insiders said was a deliberate measure to cover up sex crimes for the Gunner Government.
Following on from this the Opposition demanded that the Chief Minister and the Police Minister explain to Territorians why details of serious sex crimes were being concealed from the public, accusing the government of political interference.
Police Minister Nicole Manison rejected claims that the Gunner Government had directed NT Police media to downplay sexual assaults, calling the accusation “absolute nonsense, rubbish”.
Mr Chalker said the leaking of information about sex crimes that the police are suppressing – that was very much in the public interest – was akin to “throwing victims under the bus”.
In response, the police executive stopped shared access to daily lists of major crimes created by detectives, known as running sheets, which include the dates, case ID, case officer, the arrest with notes of what happened and the charges or probability of charges – shared between divisions that ensure investigations are not doubling up.
And at the June Estimates Hearings Mr Chalker confirmed he was investigating leaks to the NT Independent.
Ms Manison previously defended the NT police’s media unit, calling them the “busiest unit in all of the Northern Territory Government” even when it failed to release police reports in a timely manner and with varying volumes.
Mr Cross, who has previous employment ties with Health Minister Natasha Fyles, has avoided questions from the NT Independent.