Why don’t the police do more to assess risk – and save women’s lives?

Daily Telegraph, 9 January 2018

Katrina O’Hara and Angela Best did not know each other. They lived in different parts of England and had nothing in common, except for this dreadful fact: both women were murdered by former partners. And each of them, as we’ve learned in the last few days,  was let down by a system that keeps on failing to protect women from dangerous men.

Ms O’Hara, 44, reported her ex-boyfriend, Stuart Thomas, to the police after he harassed her, including an incident when he climbed into her bedroom through a window. Thomas was arrested and freed on bail but, astonishingly, the police took away Ms O’Hara’s mobile phone to check for threatening messages and didn’t offer her any alternative means of contacting them.

A week later, in January 2016, Thomas lay in wait outside the hairdressers in Dorset where Ms O’Hara worked and stabbed her twice in the chest.

Ms Best, 51, lived in north London and had a long-term relationship with a man called Theodore Johnson. When she met him in the 1990s, she was unaware of a crucial fact – that Johnson had twice been convicted of manslaughter after killing two previous partners. Ms Best eventually found out that he had killed one woman but Johnson was abusive and controlling, making it difficult for her to leave. When she did, Johnson lured her to his flat a couple of months later in December 2016 and strangled her, just as he had done to his second victim.

So many things went wrong in these two cases that it is hard to know where to start. A review by the Independent Office for Police Conduct has acknowledged that Ms O’Hara was left feeling ‘afraid and vulnerable’ without her phone. It has recommended that all victims of domestic abuse should ‘immediately’ be provided with alternative means of communication.

But the really disturbing thing about both cases is that both men had a history of abuse in previous relationships. Thomas was already the subject of a restraining order in relation to another woman, while Johnson’s record of extreme violence was known to both the police and mental health authorities. The latter were supposed to monitor him on his release from a secure hospital after he killed for a second time, but it emerged at his murder trial last week that he managed to conceal his relationship with Ms Best from them.

Something has gone very wrong here, and it goes to the heart of how the criminal justice system regards domestic abuse. The phrase covers a huge range of behaviour, from verbal threats to physical violence, and it’s still too easy for over-worked police officers to under-estimate the level of risk in individual cases. In some instances, this happens even when they have access to information about a man’s history which isn’t known to his latest victim, leaving her unaware of how much danger she is in.

‘I tell my officers to think about their job as homicide prevention,’ a senior police officer in charge of domestic abuse cases told me a couple of years ago. But that attitude is taking too long to filter down to the level of everyday policing, where the days of talking about violence in the home as ‘just a domestic’ cast a long shadow.

Since 2014, police have been able to apply for a domestic violence prevention order (DVPO), which means a man accused of violence against a partner can be excluded from the home and contact with the victim for up to 28 days. But DVPOs are not being widely used and neither is Clare’s law, which allows women to ask the police if a new partner has a history of domestic abuse. Even abusive men are smart enough to be on their best behaviour at the beginning of a relationship, and women feel guilty about asking questions about a man who hasn’t given any reason for suspicion.

That’s why we urgently need a domestic violence offenders’ register, along the lines of the one that already exists for sex offenders. A new law would give the police a legal duty to keep track of convicted abusers like Theodore Johnson, investigate whether they have formed new relationships and warn the women concerned. If Ms Best had known about Johnson’s terrible past when she met him in the 1990s, she might still be alive today.

What these dreadful cases show is that we are still not treating domestic abuse with the seriousness it deserves. Existing laws aren’t working or aren’t being used, and that’s because of a problem with underlying attitudes. No one, including police officers, can know for certain which women are at risk of being killed by current or former partners. But the risk is there, and it should be at the forefront of everyone’s minds when women seek protection from abusive men.

 

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