This story is a while old, but I’ve delayed telling it to put a bit of distance there. I was contacted by an 24/7 operational police officer about this job – the way in which they used the blog at the scene of an incident and achieved an unorthodox, but undoubtedly better, outcome for a family after a difficult incident is something I was fairly chuffed about, to be frank: to think that this work is making a difference in a part of the country I don’t police and helping frontline cops through the maze of mental health and criminal justice to achieve better outcomes makes those late evenings blogging to Newsnight and Question Time all worthwhile.
One evening the police were called to a domestic incident whereby a husband had been stabbed. Upon arrival, there was an emotionally charged, difficult incident ongoing where an elderly man had sustained a knife wound, thankfully not life threatening. It came about because of his attempt to stop his wife self-harming when she had tried to use a kitchen knife. He eventually felt he had to physically intervene there was a struggle which resulted in him sustaining the injury and the police were called by other members of family who felt it was all getting out of control.
The police officer who attended the incident and gave this feedback was the duty sergeant for the area. Upon arrival they had a head full of ‘domestic violence’ policy because a husband has been stabbed by his wife. In most forces of the United Kingdom, domestic violence policy basically says – this is a very crude simplification to make the point – if there is something you can arrest somebody for, the idea is that you do so; in order to remove the offender, calm the situation and allow officers to speak to victim without offender hovering over them. This allows full preservation of all available evidence, including photographs, scenes of crime examination if necessar and a proper handling of victims in a sensitive way which reflects that criminal investigation barging into marriage is a difficult, emotionally laden business. So in theory, the woman who had stabbed or slashed her husband could and some would argue should have been arrested for wounding, sometimes referred to as GBH.
However, when the circumstances were explained it was clear that the offence took place in the context of a struggle around self-harm and mental health. Family explained the lady’s history of depression and mental health problems. Questions were being asked about ‘capacity’ and thoughts were turning to proving criminal responsibility, mens rea and public interest tests for prosecution. And of course, none of this was prioritising the fact that both parties involved had medical problems: the ‘offender’ had her mental health problems and she was clearly very distressed; the victim had physical injuries that required hospital treatment.
So, the blog came out: courtesy of an iPhone whose owner had bookmarked the home page. Quick reference to posts about “mental capacity” and “do they have capacity” and unorthodox solutions were starting to be considered. What prevents the whole scene being properly preserved and examined with Scenes of Crime photographing everything, seizure of the weapon used; potentially seizure of clothing from those involved to preserve evidence; but NOT arrest anyone? Why not contact mental health services and prepare an assessment pathway for the suspect; remove the victim to A&E for treatment and see what the outcome of mental health assessment is before criminalising the situation?
Now this type of response would possibly be considered to be outside most police force’s policy on domestic violence. So to ensure it was appropriate, the sergeant contact the duty inspector – senior officer for the area that evening. The Inspector asked all the difficult questions that Inspectors should, in order to satisfy himself that nothing would be ‘lost’ from an evidential point of view and that there were gains to be had in approaching things this way.
In actual fact: force policies merely require ‘positive action’ by the police.
Here’s the difficulty with some mental health jobs where it involves domestic abuse which needs to be taken very, very seriously.
- Does this mean that suspects, including this one, escape liability for their actions?
- Not necessarily: nothing prevents prosecution of any suspect in a case like this. But it does mean, that prosecution should it be required, occurs after mental health assessment. It also means, that should prosecution not be deemed necessary, the person has not been criminalised by removal to police cells for all the impact that we know this can have upon people in crisis.
- Does this mean, that victims are placed under pressure not to prosecute because the suspect has mental health problems?
- Not at all – the victim would (and was) still spoken to at length about the incident in order to establish background, precise circumstances and of course, for their views about how best to handle it can be expressed. It would be quite wrong for police officers to imply one way or the other whether or not a victim should seek prosecution of their partner in a case like this, but that does not mean victim’s views about the incident should not be heard by the police.
- Indeed, it is often the case that without a victim’s express support for a criminal prosecution, it is not considered to be in the public interest to prosecute in any event.
- Of course, in cases involving significant domestic history it may be that prosecution without a victim’s consent is the only way to ensure future safeguarding of people who may or may not realise the ongoing risks they face.
This case shows that it is easy to arrest people: it would have perfectly defendable for these officers to just arrest the woman, remove her to police cells for mental health assessment and criminal investigation. In due course, conclusion would have been reached about whether to detain MHA, to prosecute or to do neither of those things. But this incident also shows that people who care for those who suffer mental health problems do sometimes come to harm themselves by virtue of trying to keep their loved ones safe.
The response given by the police needs to reflect a really delicate balance between following policies and procedures which have been painstakingly designed to balance and mitigate risks, with taking action that is in the best interests of those involved and which takes account of the views and needs of the people involved.
In this particular case, the victim of the matter did not regard himself as a victim or wish to be treated as such. He viewed himself – whatever you or I may think about this – as a loving husband trying to keep his wife of many years safe. He wanted support and help for her: the police were in a position to facilitate this as the lady was not only assessed quickly by mental health professionals, but admitted to a mental health unit where she is now engaged with appropriate professionals working to prevent violence and aggression.
So officers “did the right thing” by thinking outside of the box in order to strike this balance. And it sounds to me like they did it superbly.