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Virtual domestic abuse team driven by 'what victims want'

The Sussex Police Local Resolution Team has dealt with more than 15,000 investigations since its launch in March 2020, according to Detective Inspector Kelly Lewis.

A team of domestic abuse investigators in Sussex who became the first in the country to respond virtually to ‘non-priority’ incidents have given victims the “response that they need and deserve” over the last three years.

The Local Resolution Team (LRT) – launched on 12 March, 2020 – has since dealt with more than 15,000 investigations relating to grade 3 incidents.

Detective Inspector Kelly Lewis, who has led this Sussex Police team for nine months, explains how the LRT came to be.

She told Police Oracle: “It became apparent that there was a gap in the way that we were responding to certain domestic incidents, the incidents that were graded as a 'non-priority’. So, while looking at ways to bridge that gap there was Covid.”

With the idea of responding virtually “already a thought”, the pandemic accelerated this process and saw the force – through the LRT – depart from its previous approach of having such incidents dealt with by traditional response teams.

According to DI Lewis, there’s a clear process once it has been established that a particular case is suitable for a virtual response.

“We make contact with the victim and arrange a mutually convenient time for the meeting. At the moment, we are responding [to victims] within 48-72 hours,” she said.

Whether a virtual response is appropriate is determined by “strict criteria”, including assurances that the perpetrator won’t be there when the call is made and that a sexual offence hasn’t occurred.

Appointments are “at least” two-hours long, allowing the team – made up of 30 investigators in three teams across four sites – to complete a number of tasks.

DI Lewis said: "We complete the DASH risk assessment form, and we also do robust safety planning...as part of that safety planning, we complete any referrals that are needed for the victim, any children involved, and any other people at risk.

"Once the interview has been completed with a victim, if appropriate, we take a statement and send links out so that any evidence that can be sent to us electronically can be sent in.”

Appointments are longer when investigators, who mainly work remotely, are dealing with especially “complex” issues such as stalking and coercive and controlling behaviour.

As with any police service, its success is defined by how it’s received by those who are intended to benefit from it. In this case, the response has been emphatic.

She said: "One thing that we have done from day one is survey every one of our victims, and it's from reading those survey comments and responses and really looking at them…that's when we really started to understand that this [a virtual response] is what victims want, they prefer it.”

So far, the LRT has a victim satisfaction rate of over 90%. DI Lewis says it is basically “unheard of”, so much so that she was met with near-disbelief after sharing this with a colleague at the recent Domestic Abuse Commissioner’s conference in Manchester.

Having children, travel difficulties and concern over a physical police presence at the home are among the factors cited as making the virtual process easier.

However, victims who wish to come into the station in person are still able to do so. Giving victims the “choice” remains the priority, DI Lewis stressed.

Another sign of a successful service is when it catches the attention of other forces.

After becoming the first to start offering this virtual service in March 2020, DI Lewis says “a lot of other forces are now doing it”.

Not only is this “gratifying”, but it’s also a reflection of the message being spread far and wide.

“I really enjoy speaking to other forces. We’re all trying to do the same thing, we shouldn’t be working alone in silos, we should be sharing.”

How effectively forces share information is something DI Lewis has seen evolve throughout her 26 years in policing, 17 of which have been spent working in the domestic abuse arena.

Another is the emergence of technology which has aided policing in ways that scarcely felt possible at the beginning of her career.

DI Lewis said: "If you had said to me 26 years ago, when I first started working in policing, that I would be a police officer working from home...I would not have been able to understand how that would work.

“Police is an ever-evolving profession - using this virtual technology, this is a bonus to come out of Covid.”

The pandemic allowed people to become accustomed to interacting online in a way they hadn’t before. This, according to DI Lewis, has helped policing to steal a march on offenders.

“There’s so many areas of policing where we’re always ten steps behind perpetrators, but for once I feel like we’re ahead of the game, and that’s a really nice feeling.”

Having the LRT has presented other opportunities “to engage with victims virtually”, including around requests made under Clare’s Law – a process that historically had to be done in-person.

She said: “Any disclosures that we have to make about concerns with partners...they're [victims] getting that information quicker. And obviously, that's keeping people safe.”

With the LRT proving a huge success with grade 3 incidents, DI Lewis this week started a trial in Sussex responding to ‘priority’ incidents which have just happened.

“It’s the same format, the same team, but higher risk,” she said.

The plan with this grade 2 trial is to record interactions with victims, something that doesn’t happen currently because the platform used for the grade 3 service doesn’t have a recording function.

Stressing that she ultimately wants to “record all of them”, DI Lewis says having this capability comes with a range of benefits - particularly when it comes to pursuing evidence-led prosecutions and potentially improving criminal justice outcomes.

“The biggest thing for me that I’m continuing to do is to look at the benefits of a different way of working,” she said, adding that having teams where investigators can work remotely – and flexibly – may attract different types of people into policing.

As for the success of the LRT, she says this is down to this potent combination: “When you get the right people in the right job for the right reasons, that’s why we’re seeing the results that we’re seeing now.”

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