Detective wrongly crucified by social media pile-on

I ANSWERED a call yesterday from a man who had been reading the coverage on the horrific murders of Hannah Clarke and her three children.

"There's more to this story," he said, before telling me he'd been through the Family Court system, that men can be driven to do unspeakable things.

"Or maybe he was just an arsehole," I suggested of the father who threw petrol on his entire family and set them alight, shouting at people who tried to put out the flames.

This is what Detective Inspector Mark Thompson - who has now been pulled from the investigation - was alluding to when he said the community was often divided when it came to domestic violence - particularly an act of domestic violence as public and horrific as the one we saw this week.

Children Aaliyah, 6, Laianah, 4 and Trey, 3 were murdered by their father.
Children Aaliyah, 6, Laianah, 4 and Trey, 3 were murdered by their father.

He didn't, as is being widely reported, say Rowan Baxter had been "driven too far".

If you are going to be angry about what an exhausted cop said at a press conference after seeing things you and I would never ever want to see, you need to first read his whole statement.

Because he did not say what you think he said.

"It took less than a day for (Detective) Inspector Mark Thompson of Queensland police to say the alleged murderer was perhaps not a domestic violence perpetrator, but had simply been `driven too far'," change.org executive director Sally Rugg tweeted today, joining the pile-on of misinterpretation.

For those of us who frequently cover police incidents, we know about "policespeak", about the phrases detectives throw out because they are partway through an investigation and can't yet give a complete answer to your questions.

"We're keeping an open mind," is a common one. Police can't zone in on one line of inquiry. They would be crucified in court if they did. Or in this case, crucified by a coroner. They need to look at the complete picture. They need to speak to everyone and anyone. They can't, in a criminal investigation, decide a particular person must be responsible, and so investigate only that person.

Murder scene at Raven street, Camp Hill. Hannah Clarke and her three children were on their way to school when they were ambushed by Hannah’s estranged husband.
Murder scene at Raven street, Camp Hill. Hannah Clarke and her three children were on their way to school when they were ambushed by Hannah’s estranged husband.

When asked whether the deaths of Rowan, his estranged wife Hannah and their children Aaliyah, 6, Laianah, 4 and Trey, 3, were being treated as a murder-suicide, he said: "Information that's at hand has led us to believe that the Baxter children and Hannah Clarke were killed, and I don't believe at this stage there are any suspicious circumstances around the death of Rowan Baxter."

Ladies and gentlemen, this is policespeak.

He used the words "open mind" after that. It's a rare police press conference where this phrase is not used.

"We need to look at every piece of information," Insp Thompson said.

"And to put it bluntly, there are probably people out there in the community that are deciding which side, so to speak, to take in this investigation.

"Is this an issue of a woman suffering significant domestic violence and her and her children perishing at the hands of her husband?

"Or is this an instance of a husband being driven too far by issues that he's suffered by certain circumstances into committing acts of this form.

Family friend Korri Loader at the scene of the murder suicide. Pic: Peter Wallis
Family friend Korri Loader at the scene of the murder suicide. Pic: Peter Wallis

"Because of that, that's why I want people to come and speak to us.

"If we are going to build a complete picture, keep an open mind as to what's occurred, then we need to speak to everyone and compile that complete picture as to what's occurred."

Did he simply say, Rowan had been "driven too far"? What do you think?

The detective went on to say: "There is no excuse for perpetration of violence in our community. There is certainly no excuse for perpetration of violence among families behind closed doors."

And when asked to clarify his earlier comments, about whether he was actually suggesting a man who'd murdered his family had been "driven too far", he shook his head emphatically.

Detective Inspector Mark Thompson talks at police headquarters on Monday.
Detective Inspector Mark Thompson talks at police headquarters on Monday.

"Absolutely not," he said.

"I am not leaning towards that at all.

"What I was trying to illustrate by my comments were, you do see, both in public commentary and in general responses from the community that people will make those allegations.

"Maybe they are scorned members of the community themselves that have had dealings with domestic violence in the past, and that's the sort of thing they say in response to an incident like this.

"I am certainly not saying that the Queensland police service are taking any view in relation to that at all. We are not doing that. We are keeping an open mind and doing an open investigation, which is exactly what we are to do and we are under direction from the State Coroner to do that.

"What I was trying to illustrate was that, if there are people out there making the comments, such as what I've just described, then please come forward and substantiate those claims. Help us with the information we need to build that picture for the coroner."

 

Hannah Clarke’s three children perished with her in the attack.
Hannah Clarke’s three children perished with her in the attack.

 

The journalists in that room had the complete picture. They did not go back to the office and write about Insp Thompson's outrageous comments. It was the social media pile-on that hung him out to dry.

Police Commissioner Katarina Carroll this morning apologised for his comments.

"I apologise to the community and victims about what's been said," she told ABC Radio this morning.

"He can't believe he said that."

She said Det Insp Thompson was "distraught" and "gutted" after listening back to the press conference.

But she should have said she stood by her investigators. That Insp Thompson was as devastated as anyone at the events that unfolded in Brisbane this week.

If anyone is suggesting Hannah brought about her own murder, they deserve your anger.

But if you believe that's what Insp Thompson said, make sure you make that decision after reading his comments in their entirety.