‘Did we do enough to protect her?’ – EUPOL COPPS advisers talk about their experiences of fighting domestic violence

There is no country on earth that is free of domestic violence. As diverse organisations in Palestine and around the world mark 16 days of awareness raising on the issue of gender-based violence from 25 November – 10 December, EUPOL COPPS advisers from Canada, Italy, the Netherlands and Sweden provide some insights on what their police forces at home have done to address the issue, and what lessons this could provide for their Palestinian colleagues.

“This is an issue that is very close to my heart,” says Leanne Butler, a Canadian adviser who has been assigned to support Colonel Waffa, the head of the Palestinian Civil Police’s Family and Juvenile Protection Unit. Recalling a murder case, for which Leanne acted as lead investigator in her home state of Prince Edward Island, she asks whether more could have been done to protect the female victim, who was killed by her ex-husband.

“He [the ex-husband] mostly acted within the limits of the law. He abused his wife, later ex-wife, for years and even when the courts intervened, he was very smart about sticking exactly to the limits imposed by judges. He would then resume the stalking and abuse after those limits had expired. I remember the date of the murder very clearly – 1 July 2001. It was an event that made us review whether we had done enough to protect the victim. It led to concrete changes in the way we address this issue”.

A key aspect of fighting domestic violence, according to Leanne, is giving more power to police officers and prosecutors to record evidence and bring charges against domestic abusers, even if their victims change their mind about whether to pursue the case. Hillevi Johannson, a COPPS criminal investigations adviser from Sweden, concurs.

“I started as a patrol police officer in November 1978. Back then, if you were called out to a domestic violence incident, all we could do was negotiate – a male police officer would talk to the man, and I would talk to the woman. But it was rare that we would do more than just try and calm the situation down. This didn’t stop women being badly injured or even killed, and we realised that we had to deal with domestic violence with a seriousness it wasn’t given before”.

Within the Swedish Police, addressing gender-based violence is assigned to specialised. The people who work within those units take a great deal of pride in what they do – at the beginning of her career, says Hillevi, working on domestic violence was not considered prestigious and male officers in particular were reluctant to engage with the problem.

New technologies are also important parts of the Swedish approach – patrol police officers now carry cameras with them that they use when called to domestic violence incidents to record statements. These recordings can then be used as the basis for a prosecution, even if the victim has been pressured into withdrawing their statement. It is the prosecutor who takes a decision on whether to prosecute, not the victim, giving extra protection to victims. Most important however for Hillevi is awareness raising and training.

Michele Tarlao, a COPPS adviser on narcotics and organised crime from the Italian state police also underlines the importance of training within a police service and adds that new procedures combined with awareness raising can have a demonstrable impact. He highlights the successful introduction in Italy of a ‘code red’ procedure to speed up response times to domestic violence and also a checklist that police officers have to follow when called out to a domestic violence incident.

Michele stresses that domestic violence is not just a police matter, “Domestic violence is a social problem and so you need to bring together different governmental and non-governmental agencies – it’s not just a law enforcement issue. It may be the case that a child mentions to a teacher at school that they are victims of violence, so teachers need to receive some training in what to do next. Palestine has definitely made some positive steps in bringing together different agencies to tackle domestic violence, for example the Ministry of Health, Ministry of Education, social services and law enforcement”.

Like his colleagues, Carolus Janssen, a community policing adviser from the Netherlands believes that there has been a huge change in the way his home country has dealt with domestic violence in the three decades he has worked in the police. He also notes that violence is about more than just bruising or injury, “Even in the past, beating up your partner could be addressed with classic legislation, but the threat of violence that victims had to live with, that psychological pressure, was not usually dealt with previously. Now, in the Netherlands, both victims and perpetrators of domestic violence are offered psychological counselling as one of the many tools used to fight the problem”.

In the EU and in Canada, the EUPOL COPPS advisers agree that more needs to be done in their home countries, but also urge Palestine to take on some of the best practices applied internationally to reduce domestic violence. Certainly, the development of specialised units, new procedures, the ability to prosecute even when the victim withdraws their statement, awareness raising and training have all played a crucial role.  

“I am very honoured to be working on the issue of domestic violence in Palestine, and I believe it is an issue that needs special attention” concludes Leanne from Canada. “Over the last years, Colonel Waffa and her team have made huge inroads in building dedicated units in all eleven districts of the West Bank that vulnerable people and victims of domestic violence can turn to. My job is to help her progress further with what they have already achieved”.