How Essex Police is tackling domestic violence
- 16 June 2014
- From the section Essex
A year ago Essex Police was on the receiving end of a damning report by HM Inspector of Constabulary over its handling of domestic violence. Inspectors said the way officers dealt with domestic violence was "fragmented" and of "significant concern". Twelve months on, are things any different?
Nick Alston, the Police and Crime Commissioner for Essex, pulls no punches: "There's a very real chance we are not yet having a real impact," he says.
Each day Essex Police receives about 80 reports of domestic abuse. Immediately after the HMIC report, this number arced upwards to 100 incidents a day in July before returning to the 80-a-day average.
If you compare that with the 20 or so burglaries reported each day, the scale of the problem becomes clear.
And the average number of times a domestic violence victim has been assaulted before seeking help? Thirty, says Mr Alston.
In an eight week period last autumn three more women were killed in domestic violence attacks. They included Kirsty Humphrey, murdered in her living room by her former partner Mark Czapla.
"The sad fact is," said Mr Alston, "we are still discovering really large numbers of pretty shocking abuse.
"The numbers (of incidents) have not really shifted."
So what have the police done in the past year?
The HMIC criticised the police's assessment of victim risk and the lack of information sharing with outside organisations.
In response the force has established what it calls "domestic abuse triage teams" across the county which are made up of police, social care, health, probation and housing teams.
The idea is that victims will be identified earlier - ideally before any assault.
"The idea that we've got to wait until someone has a broken arm or a black eye or a fat lip is just wrong," says Essex Police's chief constable, Stephen Kavanagh, who was appointed last year.
"My frustration is that too much of this is left until it becomes a criminal issue. Domestic abuse is a social issue primarily before it becomes a criminal issue."
So if a GP, dentist or social worker becomes aware that somebody might be a victim of domestic abuse, it can be flagged up with other organisations which might be able to help, such as a local authority housing department or abuse charity.
Lyn Headley, chief executive at Basildon Women's Aid, said these measures were already having a tangible impact, even if the victims themselves might not be aware of them.
"These are still early days but we can feel there is a change coming through - a willingness to listen and to try and make a difference," she said.
The Basildon Women's Aid branch now has a worker ensconced at Basildon Hospital's accident and emergency department.
They can see up to five referrals in a single day.
Women's Aid also have somebody sitting with police involved in domestic violence cases. Previously, if cases did not meet the criteria to go forward as a criminal investigation they would not be dealt with, says Ms Headley.
Now they are discussed with the Women's Aid representative in case they might be able to help.
"We are trying to stop an escalation, to stop the problems from getting worse."
Mr Kavanagh is also concerned about people's willingness to tackle domestic abuse generally.
"We need to break down some of the taboos surrounding domestic violence," he said.
Janet Dalrymple, chief executive of Safer Places, agrees.
"People just don't like to interfere," she said. "We hear too often from friends and relatives who did see something but didn't report it. The truth is, people don't like to interfere into other people's private business."
And that, admits Mr Alston, might even apply to some police officers.
"I've heard victims saying the police are judgemental," he said, adding there were some who would "never" talk to the police.
Victims that will not give evidence can scupper a successful prosecution.
So, since December, Essex officers have started wearing body cameras. Funded with help from a £440,000 Home Office sum, the cameras have been worn by about 80 officers specifically to capture raw evidence at domestic abuse call-outs.
The move has been welcomed by Alex Bamber, of Essex Probation Service, who described them as a "welcome weapon against this pernicious crime".
Between November 2013 and March 2014, Essex Police put 76 so-called "victimless prosecutions" (those pursued without the victim's support or evidence) forward. Forty-one were successful, 33 were unsuccessful and the rest were still pending.
The police hope more perpetrators of domestic violence will admit their crimes when presented with video evidence in the court room.
Mr Alston also spoke of "creative" ways of tackling domestic violence.
This, it turns out, includes the police sending seasonal greetings cards and the involvement of beauty salons.
Although its success has yet to be reviewed, Essex Police has been working with hair salons to raise awareness of domestic violence, specifically the type of support available,
A victim who might not speak to the police or a social worker might, says Mr Alston, speak to their hairdresser.
Equally, a hairdresser might notice signs of abuse, such as ripped out hair or bruising.
Although not a snooping arrangement, some salons have agreed to provide victims with cards stating where they can get help.
As for the sending of cards, Essex Police started this at Christmas when it dispatched about 100 envelopes to known serial abusers asking them whether they would like pudding or porridge for the festive period.
"It was a reminder," said Mr Alston, "that we knew who they were, where they were and that we were watching them."
Working out who these people are is now done by algorithms which score offenders according to the gravity, frequency and recentness of their abusing.
At the current time there are 110 men and seven women whose scores are so high they are actively being targeted by police.
And these people have either been visited - or are soon to get a knock on the door - by police for the World Cup.
"We will also be writing to them to say we will be watching them," said Mr Kavanagh, who is expecting an increase in domestic abuse because of the "testosterone" and "alcohol" unleashed during the international football event.