The ongoing review into 600 sex assault cases due to fears that all crucial evidence may not have been investigated or disclosed looks set to have a huge impact on the way police forces go about their work in the future.
Met Commissioner Cressida Dick has this week admitted it could lead to more officers being taken off front line duties in the months and years to come, to devote more time and resources into getting disclosure of evidence right.
It follows the collapse of several rape trials in recent weeks as a result of vital evidence, contained on mobile phones and other digital devices, either not being examined or not being shared with the defending legal teams.
Innocent people faced the prospect of long periods in prison, and had already been through the trauma of being publically named and accused of sexual assaults, before key evidence was uncovered which led to all charges being dropped.
It has caused serious concern over the reliability of police and prosecutors when bringing such cases to the courts.
And now rules around the recording of domestic violence incidents, whereby a new offence of ‘coercive control’ enables police forces to group together a series of violent incidents as one, brings further cause for concern.
Under the new rules, multiple incidents as serious as grievous bodily harm can be lumped together, bringing ‘coercive control’ and controlling behavior as non-injurious violent crime, capped at one offence.
Whilst this move may make it easier for police forces given the many demands on them in the modern world, the danger would be the same. We’d be left short of the full facts.
In this situation, there would be a danger of the real numbers of domestic violence incidents in a relationship being hidden by the umbrella ‘coercive control’ charge.
Does such an offence against an individual’s name mean there has been one incident, does it mean there have been five, gradually escalating in violence?
Would a police force be able to accurately assess the danger such an individual posed going forward? Perhaps not.
As specialists at Hudgell Solicitors in supporting people in making compensation claims against the police, our civil liberties team already sees far too many cases where a failure by police to gather full information and facts leads to innocent people either becoming a victim of crime, or being wrongly accused of committing a crime themselves.
Put simply, if our police forces don’t do all they can, at all times, to establish the full facts and record them accurately, what chance is there of protecting the innocent people they are paid to?
Changes come as police force found to have ‘missed opportunities’ to catch double killer with history of domestic abuse against women
Talk of officers spending less time on the front-line, combined with a downgrading of the classifications of domestic abuse incidents, does little to instill public confidence in the police, which has suffered due to pervious cuts.
It comes as Thames Valley Police has admitted opportunities were missed to catch a double killer, who killed two of his partners over a five-year period.
Robert Trigg, 52, from Sussex, was convicted and jailed for life last year for both of the deaths but had initially been treated as a bereaved partner by the police on the two separate occasions.
Trigg was in a relationship with Caroline Devlin, 35, who was killed in 2006 and then with Susan Nicholson 52, who was killed in 2011. Both women were killed in their homes, barely two miles apart in West Sussex.
Foul play was ruled out following both deaths despite Trigg having a history of domestic abuse against women. Now, the police force has referred itself to the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC), saying an independent review had referred to ‘missed opportunities’.
Accuracy in policing is key to preventing innocent being wrongly accused, or victims of abuse
Going back to the ongoing review of sex assault cases and the concern over evidence gathered and disclosed before cases reach court, Met Commissioner Ms Dick said it was “unthinkable” that an innocent person could be found guilty because relevant evidence had not been identified and disclosed.
That is quite right, but similarly, it is surely also unthinkable that a system of offence recording could allow such a general record to be taken over domestic abuse, in which an individual could have just one offence against their name despite repeated, known incidents.
It is surely only right – for the ease of policing, prosecution and public protection – to separately count each and every violent incident, and not dilute them into one, thereby making it less visible in recorded public crime statistics.
Referring to increasing amounts of digital media officers have to examine in cases where the two parties are known to each other, Ms Dick said she anticipates the force will have to devote considerable time and resources into getting disclosure right in the years to come.
“The primary thing we must do is act fairly and bring people to justice in a proper and legitimate way. What we don’t want are any miscarriages of justice,” she said, and that is quite right.
Sadly, cutting resources from the front line and lessening the accuracy of records kept with regards to domestic abuse won’t help.
The fear is it will only lead to more innocent people being wrongly accused, and more innocent people becoming the victims of crimes which could, and should, have been prevented.