Comment: As the victims are put to rest, hand wringing over the shootings last week in Auckland will likely focus on a single question: its foreseeability. Could, would, should the judicial personnel who determined that the appropriate sentence for Matu Tangi Matua Reid’s brutal assault on his former partner was an ankle tag, have realised that he might do something like this?
This is the wrong question. No, at the time of his sentencing, Reid was not at high risk of bringing a shotgun to work and killing his coworkers. But he was at high risk of killing her or some other woman in his life. His obvious potential lethality just fell on unlikely victims.
And that is the crux of the failure that caused these unlikely but entirely foreseeable homicides. Reid pushed, kicked, and slapped his partner. He threw a wine bottle at her head, blackening her eye, and threatened her with a pair of scissors. He threatened to “take out” her and her entire family.
He strangled her, choking her so hard that he broke the hyoid bone in her throat – often a precursor to death by strangulation. She was unable to breathe for 10 seconds. He set fire to her bedroom. At the time of this brutal assault, Reid was already serving a community-based sentence for a prior assault. When Reid was arrested, he denied any wrongdoing, playing the victim-blaming card that is always so reliable in domestic violence cases, by claiming that she was fabricating or exaggerating her claims.
It appears that, at his sentencing, the probation officer and judge were aware that Reid was at high risk of harming her again. The probation officer inexplicably found that Reid was simultaneously at high risk for committing future domestic violence but at low risk for “recidivism”. Her safety, or for that matter his renunciation of what he had already done to her, weren’t serious enough to warrant a more severe sentence.
This is a perpetual problem here in Aotearoa New Zealand: slaps on the wrist for domestic violence crimes. If Reid had committed the same violent crimes against strangers, if he had kicked, slapped, and strangled a dairy owner or bottle shop clerk – if he had threatened to return to finish the job – he would likely be serving a prison sentence right now, and his victims last week would have made it home from work safely to their families.
But instead, since he ‘only’ committed these brutal crimes against an intimate partner, they were treated the way we have always treated men’s violence against women: as mere ‘domestics’. The probation report fed into these sexist myths, explaining that Reid viciously attacked his partner because he felt like she didn’t treat him with sufficient “respect”. Reid’s sexist attitudes and justifications for his use of violence to force a woman to “respect” him were not mitigating factors. They were risk factors.
Reid was deemed “at low risk for reoffending” at his sentencing in part because court personnel were screening for the wrong type of risk. For decades now, there have been validated, reliable risk assessment measures designed specifically to predict the risk of domestic violence recurring. But we don’t use them in Aotearoa New Zealand.
Court personnel in the Family Court do not use validated risk-assessment measures when making decisions about things like protection orders and care of children. They use their subjective intuition to ‘assess’ risk. In criminal courts, court personnel use risk-assessment measures designed to measure things like psychopathy (antisocial personality characteristics) and the likelihood of criminal offending generally (armed robbery, gang violence, etc).
Yet no one assesses for the risk that domestic violence perpetrators will continue to harass, intimidate, stalk, and attempt to reassert control over their victims, which also happens to be a pretty good indicator of lethality for these particular offenders. The result is that our system perpetually under-estimates the risk of recurring domestic violence, particularly the type of violence known as coercive control.
Risk assessment measures designed to predict whether bank robbers will strike again do not take into consideration stalking, harassment, threats, and intimidation. In fact, they do not take into consideration any conduct that has not been charged and prosecuted criminally. They do not take into consideration what happens when men who attempt to dominate and control women because they believe that their gender entitles them to do so feel their control slipping away. Women just have to live with those risks, perpetually unnamed and unrecognised, in the background fabric of their lives.
Aotearoa New Zealand has some of the highest rates of intimate partner violence in the world. Partners are the leading cause of homicide for women in Aotearoa New Zealand. Most women who are killed here are killed by a current or former partner. Our rates of domestic violence are significantly higher than in Australia, Canada, the United States, and the UK, countries with whom we share cultural, historical, and legal similarities. Our failure to prioritise women’s safety and their right to live free of fear and violence drives these statistics. In Aotearoa New Zealand, women are simply expected to put on a stiff upper lip and live with the ever-present threat that the men in our lives will harm, control, or even kill us. Our lives don’t matter.
This isn’t about law and order or being “tough on crime.” Aotearoa New Zealand has no problem doling out lengthy sentences for most crimes. This is about a particular category of harm: the harm that abusive men pose to the women in their lives. As the post-mortem on what could or should have been done to prevent last week’s shooting proceeds, the question that must be asked and answered is whether it was foreseeable at his sentencing proceeding that Reid would hurt her or her loved ones and why that risk wasn’t given more weight. Why did the system find it acceptable for her to bear the foreseeable risk of his rage and violence, and why is it only now outraged because he killed someone else? Reid’s lethality was absolutely foreseeable. This time it just landed on people whose lives we value.