Are we there yet

Roberta Clarke, Regional Director of UN Women.

Over 8,000 applications are made annually for protection orders. Yet between 2013 and 2018 only 997 reports were made to the police across Trinidad and Tobago. Indeed, in this period, reports to the police declined by 49 per cent even while we know that Trinidad and Tobago has gotten more violent. Many women who experience abuse do not turn to the police. They lack confidence in the provision of an effective response.

There is so much that the police should do. There are no issues of detection to complicate policing. The identity of abusers is known and the level of risk of future fatal violence can be ascertained. Here are ten actions which the Police Service can immediately adopt to ensure that victims feel more secure.

1. Listen attentively

Reporting abuse is an act of courage. Police must listen non-judgmentally, gain the trust and assess the level of risk in order to protect victims from further harm. Interviews must be private, reports recorded and the victim informed about what the police will do next to investigate the report.

2. Investigate

Reports of physical violence or threats of violence must be investigated by the police. Police must take the lead in building the case rather than relying on the victim to build the case for them. 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.

3. Safeguard

Police officers must be knowledgeable to give information that will keep victims and their family members safe. Police should develop the practice of home visits and community patrols to build confidence that they are concerned about the victim’s safety and are working to ensure safety.

4. Mandatory arrest

If upon investigation, the police are satisfied that an arrestable offence has been committed, the perpetrator should be arrested. Swift action also places the perpetrator in a secure setting for a ‘cooling off’ period. Upon arrest, the perpetrator can also receive appropriate social service interventions.

5. Risk assessment

Arrests should trigger risk assessments to ascertain whether 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 and will be an input into the determination of charging and bail applications.

6. Protection orders

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

7. Prosecute breaches of protection orders

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

8. 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.

9. 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.

10. 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. We need early interventions for perpetrators based on the principles of victim safety and perpetrator accountability. 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.

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.

• The above is the final of six columns from the coalition to be published in the Express this week, in commemoration of the global campaign of 16 days of activism to end violence against women and girls.

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