Sophie Spittles was horrified to discover police had handed all of her phone data to her former partner. (ABC News: Shaun Kingma)
New South Wales Police handed a domestic violence victim’s entire phone data to her perpetrator, a man who is also a senior member of an outlaw motorcycle gang, in a case which legal experts say could amount to serious misconduct.
The phone data included passwords, locations captured by GPS, 11 years’ worth of photos and videos, personal diary notes and details of clandestine domestic violence services.
Police handed the information to the perpetrator, a man with over a dozen previous domestic violence-related charges, by mistake among other documents which he requested to defend his case in court.
The victim, Sydney woman Sophie Spittles, found out about the extraordinary breach of her privacy after her former partner messaged her with a sample of the information police gave him.
“I actually did fall to my knees because I knew this was huge and I knew this was going to really affect my life and this was going to shift it drastically,” Ms Spittles said.
Upon learning about the breach, Ms Spittles confronted officers from Hornsby police station and recorded the conversation outside the station.
She told 7.30 that she was worried that if she did not record it, what happened to her may “get buried”.
The officer Ms Spittles spoke to was not involved in releasing her private data.
Ms Spittles can be heard on the recording saying: “You’ve given a senior bikie full access to my phone.” In reply, the officer at the station admitted to the error.
“I don’t know what you want me to say Sophie … He shouldn’t have got it. The cops have f***ed up. We’re going to investigate it.”
NSW Police has admitted to the privacy breach, saying it was a genuine mistake.
Assistant Police Commissioner Leanne McCusker said: “The sensitive material should not have been provided to the accused. There was certainly no intent for any danger for Sophie … because ensuring victims’ safety is paramount.”
Assistant Commissioner McCusker has encouraged victims of domestic violence to come forward to police, saying the incident was not part of a systemic problem within NSW Police.
The officer involved has since received specific training.
‘My head is cracked open’
When Ms Spittles decided to split from her violent boyfriend in February 2020, she put together a safety plan and shared it with a friend.
She told 7.30 that she was nervous about the move as she was aware of statistics showing that the most dangerous time for a woman can be when she leaves a violent relationship.
“I had a safety plan with a friend set up, that if anything out of my control was to happen and we were at risk, I was going to message him and he was going to call the police on my behalf,” Ms Spittles said.
On the night Ms Spittles told her boyfriend that they were done, an argument quickly escalated.
She was violently attacked in the car park of her apartment building in Sydney’s North West.
“I was terrified. He just lost it. He gave me a punch to the mouth but I ended up falling backwards and hitting my head on the stairs. I was out cold for about 20-25 minutes,” Ms Spittles said.
After she woke up, Ms Spittles acted on her safety plan and sent her friend a series of photos of her injuries and desperate text messages, including one saying: “My head is cracked open.”
Ms Spittles’ injuries from the night included a 10cm laceration to the back of her head, severe bruising, broken teeth, a dislocated jaw and a dislocated shoulder.
Police officers broke into Ms Spittles’ flat, however she refused to co-operate as she was fearful for her safety.
Later in hospital, police seized her phone in an attempt to obtain evidence about the assault.
Police told Ms Spittles they would only save messages from the night of the assault. But instead, she discovered the software used meant they had downloaded everything.
In an extraordinary development, nine months after the assault, Ms Spittles found out that police officers mistakenly handed this information over to her abuser.
“They literally handed him the last 11 years of my life to date,” she said.
“It really isolated me in the sense of, if I ever needed help, it was pretty clear I couldn’t call the police. But I also couldn’t call anyone or any support network because all those contacts were now virtually dead because he had them.
“It felt like someone had just hit me across the back of the head with a baseball bat.”
‘A culture of misogyny’
Amy Burton, managing lawyer of the pro bono legal service Everyday Justice, told 7.30 that apart from the serious privacy breach, this case could amount to police misconduct.
She said that given the internal police investigation has concluded, it should be referred to an independent investigation by the Law Enforcement and Conduct Commission.
“A domestic violence victim relies on the police to keep information they tell them safe,” Ms Burton said.
“When police are handing over a USB containing someone’s full phone records, you’d have to say that there has been some form of misconduct that’s occurred there.”
Ms Burton explained that it is normal practice to provide defendants who plead not guilty with a brief of evidence. The brief should include only information that is reasonably likely to be relevant to the court case.
However, she said that in Ms Spittles’s case, the type of information provided to her abuser was never going to be used in court and therefore it should have never been given to the perpetrator.
“I can’t see how that would ever be acceptable,” Ms Burton said.
This is not the first time Hornsby police officers exposed a domestic violence victim to serious risk.
Last April, the NSW state Coroner said NSW Police failed to prevent a man named John Edwards from murdering his own children.
Their mother, Olga Edwards, reported her former husband to officers 18 months earlier, but they did not believe her and did not investigate her complaints.
“There’s a culture in that police station of misogyny,” Ms Spittles said.
“And it’s very apparent when you go in there as a victim, a female victim alone, unsupported. It almost has a smell in the air. You know you’re on your own.”
Three weeks ago, a magistrate found Ms Spittles’s former partner guilty of assaulting her.
He is now on bail and out in the community, waiting to be sentenced in June.
Ms Spittles is still scared for her safety every day.
She said she suspects that since the guilty verdict, her ex started using the personal data he obtained from police. Several of her contacts had already received anonymous threatening phone calls.
“My worst fear was that that information would be stored for some time. And then upon a guilty verdict at court, that information would be used to wreak havoc on my life,” Ms Spittles said.
She has reported him to police three times over the last three weeks.
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