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Essex Police rated as “Inadequate” in handling domestic violence and child exploitation

Politics / Tue 15th Dec 2015 at 03:00pm

ESSEX Police has been rated as “Inadequate:’ in a government report on how it handles domestic violence.

HM Inspector of Constabulary Zoe Billingham’s report is a follow-up to one published by HMIC in March 2014, which highlighted “significant weaknesses” in the service police gave domestic abuse victims.

Essex Police is just one of four forces that have been graded as “inadequate”.

The report makes the following criticisms:

1 Essex Police is committed to supporting victims and protecting vulnerable people from harm. However, while the force has processes in place to identify and support those people who are vulnerable, the policing response is often poor and routinely fails to meet the needs of victims.

2. There are significant weaknesses in the force’s approach to victims of domestic abuse, its response to missing and absent children and its preparedness to tackle child sexual exploitation

3.There is a lack of understanding amongst many frontline staff about how to identify, respond to and safeguard vulnerable victims.

4. In the force control room there are significant backlogs of incidents where police have not attended nor contacted the victim after their initial call. HMIC is especially concerned that the backlog contains a high number of domestic abuse incidents.

5. Not all officers responsible for investigating cases where the victim is at high risk of harm are appropriately trained and experienced. The risk to children from households where there is domestic abuse is sometimes overlooked.

6. However, there is confusion amongst officers, including supervisors, about the use of the categories ‘missing’ and ‘absent’…..Officers do not always understand the link between missing children and child sexual exploitation.

7. While HMIC was reassured that the force can identify vulnerability at the first point of contact in the control room, we were not assured that front counter staff in police stations can identify people who are vulnerable and who might need additional support.

8. There is no specific flag for child sexual exploitation or where callers report their children being inappropriately approached online.

9. The force’s understanding of the needs of vulnerable victims and the service it provides to them is inconsistent. The service provided to victims by specialist investigative teams is better than elsewhere in the force but a lack of accredited, experienced detectives often undermines the quality of investigations.

10. We found occasions where crimes against young people who have potentially been exposed to child sexual exploitation are investigated by officers without the requisite skills, training or accreditation.

11. Some people who are frequently reported as missing or absent are not always being properly recorded.

12.HMIC found a number of shortcomings in how the force manages investigations where a suspect has been identified and has yet to be arrested. This is specifically in relation to suspects circulated on the Police National Computer as ‘wanted’ for domestic abuse offences.

No clear picture exists of how many wanted individuals have yet to be arrested. Whilst the force has a system to prioritise and track down those offenders assessed to pose the greatest risk, it is missing opportunities to involve frontline officers to find these outstanding perpetrators.

13. However, contrary to the force policy we found that the risk to and needs of children from households where a there has been a report of domestic abuse are not always being assessed or responded to. Details of children were not consistently being included in the risk assessments, meaning that safeguarding opportunities and referrals to other organisations are being missed.

14. Essex Police is experiencing a backlog in recording crimes onto the crime management database. To overcome this, the force has introduced a quick input form (QIF) to speed up entries.

HMIC reviewed a number of QIFs and found that:

a. none included investigation or safety plans; investigation and safeguarding records were limited even when violence had been threatened;
b. in some cases details of the investigation were absent;
c. they are being used for domestic abuse cases, contrary to force instructions.

15..Essex Police has made effective use of body-worn video cameras. Officers with whom we spoke had a positive perception of how this technology gathers high- quality evidence to support prosecutions, but not all officers have access to the equipment or other equipment with which they can record evidence. This has led to some officers taking photos of victims’ injuries on their personal mobile phones. This could expose the force to criticism in respect of the integrity of its data storage and potentially undermine prosecutions to the detriment of victims.

16. There are significant backlogs within the force control room of incidents where police have not attended nor contacted the victim. Of serious concern to us is that the backlog contained 246 domestic abuse incidents.

17. The force’s safeguarding arrangements for high-risk domestic abuse victims are generally effective. This is primarily because the force’s central referral unit (CRU) has responsibility for supporting the victim in such cases and draws together timely and appropriate additional support from partner agencies.

However, recent adjustments to the CRU remit mean that safeguarding measures for standard and medium-risk victims now rest with investigating officers on local policing commands. This has led to a misunderstanding of responsibilities between investigators and arresting officers as to who is responsible for supporting and safeguarding the victim resulting in inconsistencies in the service provided to victims.

18. However, it is of considerable concern that the force’s systems mean it is unsure how many known domestic abuse suspects are yet to be arrested. The force has no formal review process to track attempts to arrest suspects who have been circulated as wanted on force systems or the Police National Computer.

HMIC was present when officers were briefed at the beginning of a shift and found that little or no attention was paid to dangerous offenders and vulnerable people despite these details being available. This indicates that the force is missing opportunities to place high-risk offenders and vulnerable victims at the forefront of their activities.

19. Standards of investigation also vary greatly. HMIC found evidence of high-quality investigations in some specialist teams but a lack of professionalism and poor supervision elsewhere.

20. HMIC is concerned that the force is not managing individual officers’ workloads appropriately with some officers reporting that they are overwhelmed. In addition it is of concern that investigations are not always allocated to officers with the requisite skills and those staff charged with the allocation of crimes do not always understand the roles and responsibilities of investigators.

21. Due to these workload pressures inspectors found evidence of online abuse investigations being undertaken by local policing team officers with only entry-level accreditation as investigators.

22. HMIC found weaknesses in some domestic abuse and sexual offence investigations. For instance, investigations lacked proper recording of first accounts of offences, did not use enough video interviews to record the evidence of vulnerable victims and their safeguarding arrangements were not sufficiently robust.

23. Force supervision of investigations is generally good with more detailed supervision of more serious crime. In such cases, we found regular entries by frontline supervisors and detailed investigation plans. When examining investigations in respect of more commonly occurring crimes, HMIC found there is less consistency in supervision.

We noted a particular issue in the investigations where individuals had been arrested and prosecution files had been passed from emergency response officers to other investigators. The handover of these cases is not generally documented. This means that officers to whom investigations are allocated are unaware of the full scope of the activity undertaken by the arresting officers. Successful prosecutions could be undermined as a result. This is of particular concern because some of the cases HMIC reviewed involved high-risk domestic abuse victims.

24. HMIC observed confusion amongst officers, including supervisors, regarding whether they should categorise a missing person as absent or missing…..Without clarity on this matter there is a risk that the force may not routinely recognise missing children and offer support tailored to meet their needs.

25. Understanding of the link between vulnerable missing children and child sexual exploitation among many frontline staff is poor. HMIC found cases relating to missing children that had been graded as medium risk despite warning markers for child sexual exploitation in respect of that child and evidence of repeat missing episodes which would justify a high risk grading. We also noted occasions when officers inappropriately described children that went missing frequently as being ‘streetwise’, and consequently downgraded their risk assessment.

26.Staff do not always complete return home interviews which means that the force, along with partner agencies, does not understand why children go missing and how vulnerable they are.

27. Essex Police is unprepared to tackle child sexual exploitation. This inspection has focused on actions the force has taken to understand and identify the extent to which children are at risk of child sexual exploitation and the policies and practices the force is putting in place to tackle it…..

A rigorous programme to flag incidents, intelligence reports and reported crime, which would help inform the profile, is not yet in place.

HMIC found that the knowledge, understanding and awareness of child sexual exploitation amongst frontline officers is extremely limited.

28.Domestic abuse-In spite of some progress being made, for example the establishment of specialist domestic abuse investigation teams, a number of previously identified recommendations for improvement have not been adequately addressed.

Weaknesses in the force systems and processes mean that too often it makes false assumptions that safeguarding arrangements are in place.

The Juno teams now only investigate domestic abuse allegations relating to high-risk victims. Originally Juno teams investigated crimes relating to medium risk victims as well. These cases are now being investigated by officers on local policing commands, who have less expertise – there is consequently less assurance that victims will receive the service they need.

These teams took many staff from the disbanded force prisoner handling team. We found that many had not been given any specialist training for the roles that they are now undertaking. The level of demand has resulted in high levels of stress-related sickness which has increased the pressure on remaining staff in the teams.

Summary

HMIC has significant concerns about the capability of Essex Police to protect vulnerable people from harm and support victims. There are serious weaknesses in the force’s arrangements to safeguard and investigate cases involving vulnerable people.

The force’s response to victims of domestic abuse is poor. There is confusion as to roles and responsibilities amongst officers in medium and standard risk cases resulting in safeguarding opportunities being missed. Not all officers charged with investigating high risk cases are appropriately trained and experienced. These shortcomings were highlighted in HMIC’s crime inspection in 2014. The force is not always assessing or responding to the needs of and risk to children from households where there is domestic abuse.

The supervision and quality of investigations into missing people have improved. However, we found confusion among officers, including supervisors, about the use of the categories missing and absent. These weak processes are leading to inappropriate risk assessments that are leaving vulnerable children at risk. It was clear that officers do not always understand the link between missing children and child sexual exploitation.

The force is unprepared to tackle child sexual exploitation. The force has a poor understanding of the nature and scale of child sexual exploitation and knowledge and awareness among frontline staff are limited which adversely affects their ability to identify and respond to cases.

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