Policing the coronavirus: protecting the collateral victims

Posted on 24th April 2020

There can be no doubt that the measures taken to combat coronavirus will disproportionately affect the most vulnerable in society.

Top of the list must be those for whom home is not a safe place.

The lockdown is a perfect storm for victims of domestic abuse: being in a confined space with an abuser, with the added pressure of financial worries, increases the risk of violence and makes it more difficult for victims to seek help.

The lockdown measures are particularly dangerous for the children of abusive relationships, who are more likely to witness or experience violence while they are confined to their homes and whose access to trusted adults outside the home has been cut off. The fact that only 5% of vulnerable children are turning up to key worker school is particularly worrying. For some children, school is the only safe place to be.

Regulation 6 of the Health Protection Regulations lists reasonable excuses to be outside, two of which are clearly aimed at protecting victims of domestic violence: (1) accessing critical public services, including services provided to victims; and (2) avoiding injury or illness or to escape a risk of harm.

However the statistics suggest that the inclusion of these two “reasonable excuses” in the Regulations is having little effect. In the UK, the number of women killed by their partners has increased threefold since the lockdown began. There has been a surge in calls to domestic violence helplines and in reported incidents of domestic violence . The true levels of violence are likely to be far higher, as victims of domestic abuse tend not to call for help while their abuser is nearby.

Part of the problem is that the onus is on victims to explain themselves. People who take the brave step of a leaving an abusive relationship are often not yet ready to acknowledge the truth to anybody, still less to a police officer. If someone escaping an abusive situation is stopped by the police while out and asked to provide a reasonable excuse, they may not feel willing or able to provide details of the abuse in response.

The case of Marie Dinou illustrates this risk. She was arrested at Newcastle Central Station for a non-existent offence under the Coronavirus Act 2020 after refusing to explain the purpose of her journey. She was detained for 48 hours and, astonishingly, convicted in her absence when she refused to speak to the district judge. An application has been made to overturn her conviction under s.142 of the Magistrates Courts Act 1980 but only because it was heavily publicised as the first coronavirus conviction, which led commentators to point out there is no offence under the Coronavirus Act (or anywhere) of refusing to explain your reasons for being out.

Ms Dinou may have any number of reasons for not speaking. Her behaviour suggests that she may have suffered trauma, or have mental health difficulties. The point is that the police were so keen to secure the first coronavirus arrest that they seem to have forgotten to consider whether she may be vulnerable or whether there may be safeguarding issues, as their guidance requires.

It is likely that many police officers are unaware of the express protection for domestic violence victims in the Regulations.

The briefing issued by the National College of Policing and the College of Policing on 26 March 2020 includes a condensed list of reasonable excuses to leave the house. It does not mention accessing victims’ services, or escaping harm.

The operational briefing issued on 31 March 2020 advises police officers to: “keep an inquisitive, questioning mind-set,” and to consider whether any safeguarding issues are in play. The guidance notes that “it may not be safe for everyone to be at home.” The briefing says that in such cases – including domestic abuse – police should not use Regulation 6 but should “revert to normal process and legislation dealing with vulnerable people.”

However the further three-page guidance for police officers issued on 17 April 2020 on “what constitutes a reasonable excuse to leave the place where you live” only says that people may move to a friend’s address for several days to allow a “cooling off” following arguments at home.

That seems very specific, and temporary. It suggests that it is only acceptable to move to a friend’s house, not a shelter, and that victims must return home after several days of “cooling off”, regardless of how dangerous the situation may be at home. The guidance does not expressly mention domestic abuse or violence and it does not mention that victims may leave home to access victims’ services, or escape harm. And although the guidance is expressly non-exhaustive, the media reported it as a “full list” of reasonable excuses to be outside. Such misunderstandings are likely to permeate to the public, to victims and to police.

Southall Black Sisters were recently alerted to a shocking case in which the police and social services told a woman and her child at high risk of harm to stay put in an abusive household in the context of the covid-19 pandemic, instead of supporting her exit. Social services told her that it would offer counselling to her abusive husband instead.

Unless victims read the Regulations they are unlikely to be aware that this advice is wrong. The message being repeated to us constantly on our radios, devices and TVs (“Stay at Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives”), communicates to victims that there is no way out. As the lockdown drags on, with no clear end in sight, we need to do better for the collateral victims of the coronavirus.

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