Here’s what just some criminal justice professionals think about victims of crime who have mental health problems:
- They will be unreliable witnesses in court;
- Their version of events in an incident must be inherently flawed because they have mental health problems.
- Supporting evidence must be available to support their allegations which would not be necessary for ‘normal’ victims.
I don’t aim these accusations at the police alone, the CPS have had their problems too, but national mental health charities have long lobbied that the police need to improve their responses to victims with mental health problems. I have seen this for myself: I remember once being at a morning meeting in the police where a senior officer was being told, “last night there was an assault at [the local mental health unit] where a s3 patient has assaulted another s3 patient.” Without further information she replied, “Well that’s not going anywhere is it?” Well, not unless you investigate it and gather the evidence it’s not, no. What if the victim is competent to give evidence; what if it’s all on CCTV; what if three other patients and five nurses witnessed the assault?!!
Justice doesn’t stop at the hospital door; victims of crime are entitled to a proper, professional response. At the same time, it is fair to say that victims with mental health problems do represent an additional challenge because particular legal procedures can apply to victims and witnesses who are vulnerable and / or intimidated under the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999. This would potentially include a victim with mental health problems. Special interview procedures can apply, whereby specially trained officers conduct video interviews in lieu of written statements and it is all done in a way which should minimise the potential for suggestibility – vulnerable people saying what they think the officer wants to hear. Furthermore, particular procedures can apply at court to make giving evidence easier or fairer.
So I don’t immediately understand why victims who have mental health problems can’t have their allegations taken as seriously as any other victim? Of course, some patients’ account of their crime reveals cognitive problems of a type that can render some evidence unreliable, and very rarely all evidence. But not all patients and all evidence all of the time.
The police and the broader criminal justice system deal all the time with victims who tell part of a story; who blatantly lie and who contradict themselves and / or other available evidence or make mistakes. Sometimes this is because they have made a genuine error of recall during a short, unexpected and frightening incident; sometimes because they were drunk. Imagine saying, no drunk victim can be report crime because their evidence is inherently unreliable?! It would be greeted with outrage and rightly so, yet we seem to be in this position sometimes with mental health victims.
One of the cases of which I am most proud in my career for victim care and investigative tenacity involved a man who had mental health and substance abuse problems and I’m going to narrate the tale:
He was being repeatedly and rapaciously targeted by a local drug dealer: robbed, extorted, abused, threatened, held hostage for days and from time to time being made to work as a slave. He was assaulted for the fun of this man who continuously tortured him with verbal abuse and violence. Every time this man suffered an offence, he reported it to the police and one day he reported it to my team (I was a sergeant at the time). We established quickly, because he told us, that he was a repeat victim so we established the extent of this.
He represented a serious challenge as a victim / witness: he was almost constantly drunk; he frequently failed to show up for appointments during the investigation; his personal hygiene represented a very serious impediment to an operational officer spending an hour in a small room at a police station to take a statement. My constables kept saying, “I can hardly stand to breathe in there” and this was no under-statement. He was a very poor soul who had been arrested for shoplifting alcohol many times from the local mini-supermarket, such was his alcohol addiction, so he had many convictions for dishonesty which made him a prosecution witness nightmare.
When he reported the latest robbery to my team, we established that there were approximately one dozen reports in our area with him as a victim which were either being handled by CID, another policing area or by other teams in our area, where he lived. Always the same offenders. Meanwhile, I had a constable who wanted to be a sergeant who lacked some credible investigative experience of more challenging crime investigations so I asked her to gather all the reports from everywhere else – we didn’t experience much resistance, if I’m honest. I said to my PC-come-Sergeant, “Go prove”: and she did.
It took MONTHS of effort; I remember the number of failed appointments to get statements from the victim; the number that were rescheduled because he was drunk; the inconsistencies in his evidence. But I also remember the look on her face when she came back from Crown Court after having hunted down the victim to get him to court because he was drunk again and forgot. Four year in custody for the offender. What a result.
Of course the police and criminal justice system also have responsibilities to deal with offence investigations where victims are patients in psychiatric hospitals and other kinds of care institutions. We’ve seen this most recently at Winterbourne View in Bristol but there have been other cases. I’m going to do a separate blog post on that issue, as it’s a subject in its own right.