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Police and Crime Commissioners must ensure better protection of witnesses

PwalkerFormer Deputy Chief Constable of North Yorkshire Peter Walker says the courts treat victims badly and welcomes Police and Crime Commissioners taking responsibility

I sometimes wonder why institutions that exist solely because this country is a democracy should be so united against the principle of electoral accountability on occasions.

It is as though elections are generally a good idea, but if they are to be used to extend accountability to areas previously regarded as the private domain of people already in charge of them, then this must be wrong.

No more has this been manifested than in the context of electing Police and Crime Commissioners.  The latest salvo comes, according to the Observer, from the judiciary.  "Judges warn of disastrous reforms to the justice system" the headline tells us.

The report goes on to describe an "astonishing attack, approved by the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales", which includes "grave concerns" about allowing Police and Crime Commissioners to become
responsible for victim support services.

The premise of their argument appears to be that Commissioners will choose what services are offered. Mr Justice Calvert-Smith is quoted as saying: "The proposal that the service provided to victims and witnesses… be left to individual police and crime commissioners elected on political platforms is potentially disastrous."

There is a complete lack of logic to this argument. The fact that a Commissioner must deliver a high standard of victim and witness care or face losing the next election is completely ignored.

Yet the reality is that courts are the last place that should be criticising greater accountability for victim support.  There is much they can do to get their own house in order before doing so.

Far too frequently judges permit victims to be the subject of bullying styles of cross-examination, rather than intervene. Victims and prosecution witnesses are still exposed to the trauma of having to wait outside the courtroom, facing the unremitting attention of friends and family of the defendant.

When it comes to sentencing, judges appear to accept anything said on behalf of the defendant at face value. The lawyer's fig leaf "my instructions are" covers the most outrageous nonsense by way of mitigation, so a burglar who obviously hasn't worked a day in his life is mysteriously starting a job (better still, an Apprenticeship) next Monday, has - against all the medical odds - shed his heroin habit and decided he will turn his life around.

The result is that instead of seeing the burglar sent to prison, which would be the best thing the victims might hope for, they instead realise he will be out with his mates by the time the pubs open.

It is absolutely right that Police and Crime Commissioners will be responsible for victim support - in fact it is the "and crime" part of the job that makes it so different and so much better as a form of governance than the limited remit of Police Authorities - and not least because the vast majority of victims do not get anywhere near a court.

In my local force, only one in eight Burglaries are detected. That this is a woefully inadequate performance goes without saying, but it is clear that for every offence where an offender is identified, seven other victims exist and all need an effective service from the moment the crime is reported.

The report will come to the police and from that moment, the interest of the Commissioner should start. There is no better way of supporting a victim than to detect the crime - clearly within the "effectiveness" remit of the Commissioner.

Yet there is far more. Many studies show that understanding the circumstances of the victim heightens the probability of detection. They are reinforced by the demographic data that consistently demonstrates certain socio-economic groups are more likely to be crime victims.

In many crimes of violence, the perpetrator has a relationship with the victim.  One of the most important lessons for a Homicide investigator is the adage "people are killed by people they know".

On top of this are the opportunities to create lasting relationships with victims of crime, their families and neighbours. Far too many corners are cut when dealing with investigations of crimes that are "routine" for the attending officers, yet anything but for the victims.

In addition, the victim of a burglary is far more likely to become a "repeat" victim within a few weeks, especially as the burglar is unlikely to have been caught or will have told his associates where new items will be available when the insurance pays out.

As any business person knows, the way in which you deal with people presents the opportunity for them to ask you for other services in the future, to recommend you to others or to seek your advice.

High quality initial contact and attendance at crime scenes enhances all these opportunities - which can be converted into more effective Neighbourhood Watch participation, greater take up of Crime Prevention advice - even recruitment into the Special Constabulary.

As a Superintendent, I arranged for every dwelling burglary have as a standard action an officer calling at the ten closest addresses, so that all in the neighbourhood knew what had happened, which stopped "series" of burglaries occurring in the same street as the residents took that little bit of extra care about home security.

The Chief Constable of the day, Sir David Phillips, went a stage further - so concerned was he about the quality of crime scene attendance, he had a building converted into a "burgled house" so every uniformed officer was trained in how to effectively deal with that crime.

As a minimum, the aim should be the person is prepared to call the police the next time something happens - a worrying fact is that many people don't.

If they are responsible for victim support, Commissioners will also be able to follow the process through - to examine it at every stage, to match the level of service with the individual requirements of the victims, to seek their feedback - and they should be prepared to make it very clear where people are being let down.

One of these points will no doubt be where the police have identified the offender and the file of evidence is passed to the Crown Prosecution Service.  This is where victims are frequently forgotten as cautions are decided upon rather than prosecutions, or lesser charges are brought to avoid "not guilty" pleas.

By far the most frequent will be the "discontinuance" of proceedings and Commissioners will no doubt be alert to the commentary these present on the quality of evidence gathering demonstrated by their police force - and hopefully asking some pointed questions about all these things when the indications are that those concerned could do better.

I disagree with the view taken by the judiciary about the involvement of elected Police and Crime Commissioners in victim support. I absolutely believe that one of the great benefits of reform is that one person will now have end-to-end responsibility for ensuring the care victims and witnesses get is significantly improved.

I want the local Commissioner to speak out when Police, Crown Prosecution Service or Court officials are letting victims down - which may be the reason that judges are expressing their concern - they know the courts need to improve.

I am delighted that whoever the Commissioner is, he or she will be accountable at the ballot box to all the people in this area for making sure these improvements happen.


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