One of my main roles as Police and Crime Commissioner is to commission services and to award grants to organisations to assist me in delivering the priorities in my Police and Crime Plan. This includes victim care services that cover domestic violence services, sexual assault referral centres and support for young people. It also includes restorative justice, the process by which the victim and offender are brought together to enable everyone affected by a particular incident to take steps to repair the harm and find a way forward.
The impact of Covid-19 means that although volume of crime across Devon and Cornwall is thankfully down, certain types of crime are likely to increase during lockdown. These include incidents of domestic abuse, where the person affected finds themselves at increased risk because they are spending more time at home with the person causing them harm. There may also be an increase in stalking and harassment cases as people might feel they are unable to get help while confined to their homes. Therefore one of our main challenges during this time is to ensure that victims know that the essential services I commission, mainly available through hard-working charities, are still available and can still be accessed.
Right at the beginning of the pandemic it was clear we needed to fill this gap so we partnered with Victim Support to ensure that in addition to the help available through our Victim Care Unit, there was also access to support 24 hours a day, seven days a week. This is now available through a web chat facility and a 24-hour helpline that can be accessed by people whether a crime has been committed or not. Since its launch we have continued to see an increase in the number of people seeking support, sometimes for very serious crimes, such as domestic violence, rape and sexual assault.
But it is clear that we need to continue to push this message highlighting the support available to help people get their lives back on track. Therefore, this week, my office launched our #byyourside campaign to remind people of the support available.
I am also ensuring that charities supporting victims of domestic abuse and sexual violence in the region are applying for Ministry of Justice emergency funding, so they can continue to operate effectively during the pandemic. My office will be administering the applications and welcome them from eligible organisations. It is vital that people continue to access these services despite the ongoing challenges posed by Covid-19.
We are also working hard to support children with the recent launch of a teacher’s helpline in conjunction with Operation Encompass to offer better support to teachers who need to make decisions about children who have been suffering from domestic abuse. The Government has praised the idea and the Home Office has now made it available across the country for all teachers to access ensuring that vulnerable children will get vital help.
In another initiative to ensure people affected by crimes are supported, a ground-breaking training programme has recently seen more than more than 100 police officers and staff undergo training to help improve their technique when interviewing victims with learning difficulties.
The Women’s Centre Cornwall has delivered the training as part of its Speak Out Project and the day-long course has been designed and delivered by the Divas - a group of women who themselves have a learning disability or autism.
People with learning disabilities often find it difficult to explain what is happening to them when they are suffering from sexual and/or domestic abuse which means they are not able to speak up for themselves. Police officers, do not get the time in their basic training to cover how best they can help people with such disabilities yet it is crucial in order to obtain enough information during an interview to support the prosecution of an offender and support the victim through the criminal justice process.
Many of those involved in the programme have said that they found the training life-changing and they really started to think about how to behave differently, how to speak differently, and how they would take that learning into everyday practice. The women who delivered the training have grown in confidence and they now feel more respected and that they will be heard. They are also able to report to other women with learning disabilities and autism that they can go to the police because they are better prepared to support them which is a fantastic achievement.