Protecting people who are at risk of abuse is one of the key priorities in my Police and Crime Plan.
Abuse can take many forms - physical, emotional and virtual. It can be committed by strangers, people who are employed to protect us or perhaps most devastatingly by those who are our relatives or friends.
Every month specialist officers and investigators across Devon and Cornwall deal with a significant number of cases (as are their colleagues up and down the country) - working to keep people safe, bring offenders to justice and prevent further harm in our communities.
It can be frightening for victims of abuse to come forward and I applaud each and every one for finding strength to make changes to their lives. It is really important that victims of abuse feel confident to report their abuse to the police, are dealt with compassionately and are able to access help and support services to keep them free from further abuse.
Sadly, in many cases of abuse a victim has suffered on countless previous occasions before they have found the strength to come forward. On average a victim of domestic abuse will have suffered abuse 35 times before reporting it to the police or other services.
While we still have much more to do to keep people safe and to prevent abuse I do believe that improvements are being made.
Recently a change in legislation means that people who abuse spouses, partners or family members will now face tougher punishments than those who commit similar offences in a non-domestic context.
For the first time official guidance for courts also makes clear that domestic abuse is no longer confined to person-to-person contact as culprits increasingly torment their victims using technology such as social networks or tracking devices. The approach to severity marks a significant shift from the existing position, which has applied since 2006, and states that offences in a domestic context should be seen as “no less serious” than others.
Police officers and staff have a much better understanding of crimes of abuse and of the needs of victims than they had a few years ago. The chief constable has set a mission for policing that has the protection of the vulnerable at its heart and, as I travel across Devon and Cornwall to meet officers and staff, I see them showing a real commitment to the mission.
Police officers must carry out a victim needs assessment for all victims - to understand what, if any, help or support they may need to recover and move on.
Our Victim Care Network continues to grow - with over 60 organisations which will provide a range of help and support to victims of crime. It can range from practical to emotional such as housing, substance misuse and therapeutic support. Victims of crime will be contacted by specialist staff in our Victim Care Unit who will discuss the needs of the individual and refer on to a specialist support service.
The development of new ways to report crime can also help encourage victims of abuse to come forward.
A growing number of third party reporting centres are being set up in Devon and Cornwall – following a successful pilot in Plymouth. These are trusted organisations within their community who work with the police to provide an information channel to report crimes.
Being able to report a crime online also provides victims with additional options - allowing them to report on their own terms and in an environment where they may feel more comfortable or can do so without the perpetrator being aware.
Closer working with partners to identify people at risk of abuse and protect them is a fundamental part of how we keep people safe. For instance, both Devon and Cornwall have ‘safeguarding children boards’ made up of professionals who work in services for children and families including health, education, police, fire and the voluntary sector. Their ambition is for children to be safer, through protection from maltreatment, prevention of impairment to health and/or development, ensuring safe and effective care and a safe environment.
Over the past four months I am pleased that the Force has rolled out Operation Encompass, a unique police and education early intervention safeguarding partnership which supports children and young people exposed to domestic abuse at the earliest opportunity. Schools and police are working together to better support children who live in an abusive household. It’s a simple scheme whereby the police call the school before 9am if an incident occurs in a student’s home the night before. This ensures schools are well equipped to support our children when they may need it most. You can find more information here: www.operationencompass.org
While progress is being made in many areas the fact remains that there are still far too many people who are the victims of abuse up and down the country and we must all continue to do more. We must ensure that our laws provide adequate protection and give the police the tools they need.
Last month the government issued a long overdue consultation to strengthen and enhance efforts to tackle domestic abuse. The consultation - which is open until the end of May seeks views on the steps we can take to raise awareness, support victims, and ensure perpetrators are stopped. It is hoped it will stimulate a national conversation on how to prevent and tackle domestic abuse.
My team and I will be putting in a response to this important consultation in the coming weeks and I would encourage others to do the same. You can find it here: consult.justice.gov.uk/homeoffice-moj/domestic-abuse-consultation
If you or someone you know is at risk of abuse there are a range of organisations you can contact for help and support through our victim care directory victimcare.org.uk
My next aim is to see how we can prevent perpetrators from abusing others by better understanding what works with such individuals. Often those affected by this abuse just want it to stop and for the abuser to get help which just isn’t there at the moment – this needs to change.