Ten actions police can take to prevent murders of women arising out of domestic violence: Reflections from Trinidad and Tobago

By Roberta Clarke

Roberta Clarke is a human rights and social justice activist. She is a Commissioner of the International Commission of Jurists and the head of the Trinidad and Tobago Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

Editor’s Note: We have seen horrific instances of domestic violence across the Caribbean in the media in the past weeks, and these are only the ones that make the news, which is usually when a woman has been murdered or nearly murdered at the hands of her partner. In Guyana in the past week alone two women have been murdered. Sadly, as those of us working on this issue and collecting data know, this is not new, as any survey of media reports over the past two decades will show. This week, Roberta Clarke offers some important suggestions for the police, drawing on her work with the Trinidad and Tobago Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Based on Red Thread’s experience which includes accompanying women to the police station to file reports and following up with them, there are a number of observations to make. Notwithstanding training, Guyana police still need to learn how to listen and to take domestic violence cases seriously. Police stations are supposed to have private rooms, but many have been turned into offices and have not been used for the longest while to take reports. Rigorous investigation is non-existent. What might happen is that a report is taken, and if there are any injuries the survivor is sent to get a medical examination and report. Charges may be laid, but there is no guarantee that this will happen, and in Red Thread’s experience the survivor is usually left to do all of the follow up. Many men have also learned how to use the system to their own advantage (even as the way the system operates it already works in men’s interests); men may also show up to make a report about the same incident and the police often end up charging both parties instead of conducting a thorough investigation. Police have been unable to provide safeguards and protections for women seeking to flee their abusers; last August, a woman who had served a restraining order against her husband in Berbice was left alone in the house with him by two police officers when she returned to collect her belongings, where he slit her throat. Having a cooling off period for abusers and providing social service interventions are both necessary, especially since an arrest may in fact trigger more violence, but other than throwing the abuser into the lockup (when this is in fact done), we have no such integrated system that can tackle domestic violence comprehensively. This is critical especially if proper risk assessments – we have nothing of the sort in Guyana right now – are to be made and enforced. In the case of Zaila Sugrim, shot by her ex-husband and whose body was found in a shallow grave last Tuesday, her husband continued to be a licensed firearm holder, notwithstanding numerous reports of domestic violence. Where the victim has to be present to identify her abuser in order for a protection order to be served, far more care needs to be paid to ensuring her safety; this past February, a woman accompanied by a rural constable was attacked and chopped in Mahaica while trying to serve a restraining order on her reputed husband. And the law needs to be amended if it is to offer a bigger deterrent. Right now breaching a protection order is punishable by $10,000 or a month in jail, if it is enforced at all. Finally, in Red Thread’s experience, the Police Complaints Authority is woefully understaffed. How to advocate for the excellent suggestions offered by Roberta Clarke below, and more importantly, how to ensure the police are accountable to survivors and victims of gender-based violence in the region?

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In Trinidad and Tobago, yet again last week we witnessed more violence against women and their families by men with whom they might have had an intimate partnership.

These murders continue to be mischaracterized as ‘crimes of passion’, as if these murdering men are unable to control their behaviour. The fact is that men who abuse women do so selectively. These same men rarely assault anyone else, not their employers, their workmates, other family members or neighbours regardless of any hostile relations and strong emotions between them. Rather they harass, abuse and finally murder women as an expression of their control. These are not crimes of passion; they are violent crimes of power.

And there is plenty which the police can do to prevent these murders and to deter repeated acts of domestic violence. The first point to appreciate is that these murders are usually the culmination of a pattern of abuse- verbal, sexual, psychological and physical. Often the men who murder women signal their intention quite clearly by sharing exactly what is on their mind, what they want and intend to do. They make direct threats as in the case of the massacre in La Brea, when the murderer put a knife to the neck of Abigail Chapman days before he killed her and three other people. She reported this threat to the police four days before her murder but no action was taken.

The majority of women who are victims experience this violence repeatedly, sometimes in an escalating and increasingly violent pattern. This violence is not perpetrated in dark corners and without noise. For the most part, family members and neighbours are aware or strongly suspect. Police and courts know because many women report and/or seek protection orders.

Yet still we keep getting the depressing news that too many police officers are not treating domestic violence as a crime. Rather, they seem to think that their role is to refer victims to the Magistrates Court to seek protection orders. That is good advice, but there is so much more that the police can and should do to prevent domestic violence and its escalation to murder. After all, there are no issues of detection to complicate policing. The identity of abusers is known, the level of risk of future fatal violence can be ascertained and the police and social services of this country have a number of tools which can be used to prevent foreseeable tragedy

Here are 10 actions which the police service can immediately adopt:

Listen attentively

To start, when a victim comes to the police station to make a report, treat her with respect and attention. Typically, abuse would have happened many times before a victim decides to report. Reporting, make no mistake, is an act of courage. The duty of the police receiving the report is to listen non-judgmentally, to gain the trust and assess the level of risk in order to protect victims from further harm. Interviews should be done in private rooms, reports recorded and the victim should be informed in a direct and clear manner what the police will do next to investigate the report.

Investigate

All reports of conduct which amount to an allegation of a crime should be investigated by the police and in particular, allegations of physical violence or threats of physical violence. The initial investigation must be rigorous. Understanding the emotional complexity of domestic violence and with their investigative skills, police must take the lead in building the case rather than relying on the victim to build the case for the police. In so doing, police will be sending the message that domestic violence is a serious crime and that police have an independent duty and interest in preventing it. Poor investigation decreases the likelihood of detection, charging and prosecution.

Safeguard

Police officers must be well trained and knowledgeable to give advice and information and to work with the victim to keep them and their family members safe. Police officers must cooperate with governmental and non-governmental agencies that assist victims and their families with safe houses, counselling and resources, if needed. Police should develop the practice of home visits and community patrol to build confidence that they are concerned about the victim’s safety and are working to ensure safety.

Mandatory arrest

If upon investigation, the police are satisfied that an arrestable offence has been committed, the perpetrator should be arrested immediately. Apart from increasing the chances of charging and prosecution, swift action places the perpetrator in a secure setting for a ‘cooling off’ period. Upon arrest, the perpetrator can also receive appropriate social service interventions.

Risk assessment

Arrests should be accompanied by a perpetrator risk assessment through which the police can make a determination about whether there are identifiable indicators that the perpetrator has the potential to and is likely to engage in further violence and cause serious harm. This risk assessment should lead to a referral of the perpetrator to social services. The risk assessment should also be an input into the determination of charging, bail applications and conditions attached to bail.

Protection orders

Victims should be supported by police to get a protection order. The magistrate court should consider granting interim or ex parte non-molestation protection orders as a matter of course at the first hearing and especially where the proceedings are delayed.

Prosecute breaches of protection orders

A breach of a protection order is a criminal offence. Police must investigate all reports of breaches of protection order as soon as possible and institute criminal proceedings where the evidence supports this.

Hold each other to account

There should be weekly police station reviews of actions taken in response to domestic violence reports. This review, led by the senior police officer, will determine what steps should be taken by police to follow up on investigations.

Mentorship

Trained domestic violence champions at the supervisor level within the police service should be identified who can offer timely support, advice and guidance to officers dealing with domestic abuse cases.

Accountability

The Police Complaints Authority should establish a hotline to receive complaints of police inaction or inadequate responses so that prompt corrective action can be taken.

The solutions to domestic violence extend well beyond the work of the police. We need an education system which inculcates the values of equality and empathy and which builds emotional intelligence and self-esteem. We need psycho-educational early interventions for perpetrators based on the principles of victim safety and perpetrator accountability. We need to support non-governmental organisations that are providing a range of services to victims and their families. We need court processes that are timely and where resulting orders are predictably enforced. We need communities to be vigilant and supportive of victims so that they have pathways to safety and freedom. We need zero tolerance for all forms of domestic violence.

All of that is as true as is the fact that we need police to act. Police must not be insensitive to or cynical about victims. They must not collude with perpetrators, nor must they have defeatist attitudes about their ability to prevent domestic violence. The Police Service must be empowered with the right messages, procedures and policies so that they do their job – protect and serve victims of domestic violence.

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