A couple of years ago, we were burgled. It was a professional job, by a man called Colin Washington, who lived a short walk from our house. As we slept upstairs, he cut the security chain with wire cutters, broke in, and stole a wide selection of our possessions. He took, amongst other things, a couple of bottles of decent wine, a pot of coins, my wife’s handbag, our jackets and coats, and my security pass for the Cabinet Office. On seeing the car key, he strolled onto the street, clicked the unlocking device, and found our car. He then loaded it up with our stuff, and drove up the road back to his flat.
He made little mess; there was no vandalism, no spray-painting, no wilful destruction of family photos. The following morning, it took us about 20 minutes to realise we’d been robbed. Only when we couldn’t find my son’s coat for school did we realise there were gaps all over the house. We know the name of our burglar because the police caught him, he was convicted and sentenced to prison.
It is hard to describe the sense of invasion and violation you feel when you know someone’s been in your home and gone through your belongings. If you’ve been a victim of a robbery or burglary, you’ll know what I mean. You can’t help but wonder what would have happened if we’d heard the noise of the chain being cut or the door being opened. If one of us had gone down stairs to investigate. If, instead of a (albeit not very successful) career burglar, the person who had successfully entered our home was psychotic.
Understanding the psychological impact of crime on the victim is a relatively new development. In the Dixon of Dock Green era, victims’ only interaction with the criminal justice system was as a witness. Police stations and courts were as forbidding to the victim of crime as the perpetrator.
Victim Support grew out of local schemes in the 1970s, starting in Bristol, and today provides services across the country. Every criminal court now has a ‘witness service’ provided by Victim Support which helps the process of being a witness become less of a trial. They allow witnesses to see the court room before they give evidence, they provide a safe space for witnesses before giving evidence, and they can provide someone to accompany the witness to court.
The arrival of police and crime commissioners (PCCs) in November represents both a threat and opportunity to the services supplied to victims of crime. The PCCs will set a budget and plan for five years, including services for victims. The most enlightened will work with Victim Support, and other groups, to improve and modernise services, to guarantee standards of service, and to ensure no victim of crime suffers more than they already have.
The new police commissioners could do worse than look at the report published this week by Rick Muir at the IPPR which argues for greater transparency and information for victims using digital technology. Muir argues that the ‘ubiquitous digital environment’ should be used to support victims. For example, Avon & Somerset police have piloted TrackMyCrime which allows victims of crime to track the progress of the investigation of their crime and to stay in contact with the police officer leading the investigation. It allows victims to track the current status of their crime online in the same way they might expect when tracking a parcel delivery, using Amazon, or using online banking. The early results are impressive: over ninety per cent of victims of crime who used TrackMyCrime in Avon & Somerset said their questions were answered adequately. Three quarters of police officers said they would recommend it to other police forces. Now, Sussex, Derbyshire and South Wales police are adopting the scheme. This is just one example of how the digital revolution can save money and improved services.
Under the new policing regime, support for victims must not be undermined. We still have a long way to go in support for victims of domestic abuse, rape and sexual assault. Rape Crisis Centres are underfunded and some are closing. Only 7 per cent of reported rapes lead to a conviction. The victims of other crimes can still feel that the criminal justice system is not on their side.
This should be core business for the Labour Party. ‘Halving the time from arrest to sentence for persistent youth offenders’ was number two on Labour’s 1997 pledge card. In office, Labour developed greater support for victims, witnesses and citizens. When Labour’s police commissioners are elected in November, they must speak up for victims. The job of a Labour police commissioner is to champion the citizen against the system, not be part of the system itself.
Paul Richards is currently seeking the nomination to be Labour’s police commissioner candidate in Sussex.