A Sussex Police initiative to help domestic abuse victims during and since lockdown has been praised in a national report.

The national report, ‘Policing domestic abuse during the pandemic’, is published by her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Police, Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS) on 23 June.

It highlights the way in which the force developed a team of specialist trained police officers and staff to deal with standard risk domestic abuse cases which are not high risk. These officers conduct virtual interviews with victims using discreet video conferencing technology. This enables officers to interact face to face with victims listening to their report, providing safeguarding advice and completing the initial investigation.

The report also refers to the way Sussex Police procured a new IT solution to support the technology. This simple and intuitive programme sends a one-time link to the victim, at a time of their choosing, to any internet enabled smart device. The victim clicks on the link and they’re then launched into a virtual consultation room, where an officer is waiting. At the end of the consultation, the victim is asked to delete the link, and all evidence of the appointment is gone.

Since the force’s Local Resolution Team was set up just a year ago as the pandemic set in, more than half of people reporting domestic abuse cases that are not immediately urgent have opted for a special video appointment service that can be used when conversations can’t take place face to face for any reason.

The 40-strong Local Resolution Team of specially trained officers are dedicated to dealing with low risk reports of domestic abuse which are not immediately urgent. They discuss the incident with the caller, carry out an initial investigation and provide safeguarding advice, to leave the victim feeling safer than before and to explore available investigative opportunities to prosecute and prevent domestic abuse.

Detective Chief Superintendent Steve Rayland, Head of the force’s Public Protection Command, said: “Our preference is to see someone face to face in private, preferably at a police station.

“However, in March last year we recognised that restrictions such as vulnerable categories, self-isolation, or travel, might make people less able to attend so the force introduced new video conferencing technology.

“The officers obtain a safe contact number and send a one time text message to the caller’s smartphone. Activating this link puts the caller in to a virtual waiting room where one of our officers will be able to see and talk to them so that an investigation can take place.”

Afterwards, the caller is told to delete the text, which is disguised in the first place to hide any links with the police.

Between May 2020 and the end of May 2021 some 6400 non-urgent appointments took place, and since January this year 88% of such appointments have been carried out by video.

Part of the safeguarding advice includes referrals to independent local support agencies.

Steve Rayland added: “We have adapted to ensure we can support people at risk and find them a safe space.
“Since Covid and the national lockdown we have witnessed people interacting differently with technology. Our recognition of this early in the pandemic and our introduction of discreet video calling has been very successful and the quality of our interaction with victims has been the same if not better than a face to face response. We are working with evaluators to understand both the efficiency and effectiveness of video resolution but early indications are that it is very effective.’

“But It’s really important people know that alongside this initiative we also continue to respond to domestic abuse as normal in emergency situations, arresting perpetrators and protecting vulnerable people.

“In fact, even when the first lockdown restrictions were relaxed during the summer, we found that the number of victims opting for the remote video meeting remained the same, equal to the numbers opting to visit a police station.

“No matter what is going on around us there is no excuse for domestic abuse it simply isn’t acceptable. The police priority hasn’t changed if you are victim of domestic abuse I would urge you to make contact with us so that we can help.

“We also enhanced awareness raising during the lockdown period with social media signposting to support services and further information on our website, newspaper adverts and community engagement in essential locations to reach out to those not online.”

Katy Bourne, Sussex Police and Crime Commissioner said; “I’m pleased that HMICFRS have recognised how Sussex Police swiftly put in place innovative measures to safeguard domestic abuse victims during lockdown when it became difficult to reach out for help safely.

“Their work in this area has been recognised as good practice nationally with the force lead for public protection recently being awarded the Queen’s Policing Medal as a result.

“I know that Chief Constable Shiner and her team will continue to go the extra mile to prevent victims suffering in silence and will strive to learn from the findings in this report and implement any recommendations that have been given nationally.”

In May 2021 the force received 2699 incident calls relating to domestic abuse. In the corresponding period in 2020 we had received 2922 such calls.

Steve Rayland, who was awarded the QPM (Queens Police Medal) in the recent Queen’s Birthday Honours for his work on combating domestic abuse, adds: “Our message has remained the same throughout Covid restrictions and beyond – if you are experiencing domestic abuse, you are not alone. We can help break the cycle of abuse. We take all allegations of domestic abuse seriously and our staff and officers understand the complexities of domestic abuse. We want to help support victims to move forward with their lives. If you are ready to talk we are ready to listen”

If you’re a victim of domestic abuse, or know someone who is, and there’s an emergency that’s ongoing or life is in danger, call police on 999.

If you can’t talk because the perpetrator is nearby, you can then press the numbers ‘55’ into your mobile phone which will alert the operator to your situation.

The Sussex Safe Space website also provides a valuable directory of help and support from all agencies, available near you.

For further information and advice from Sussex Police see the force website.